Little Sponges

Early Language Learning
by Stevie Zvereva

Baby sign language and foreign languages expand young minds.

It’s chaos on a Thursday morning at Trinity Lutheran Church as 10 tots, ages five months to three years, circle around the instructor with their parents. Curious feet cover every corner of the room, as moms and dads politely attempt to tether that energy to their laps. But as a voice cuts calmly through the clamor, the room quiets. “Baby, baby… baby signing time,” the instructor sings. Hands crossed, touching her elbows with fingers from the opposite hands, she rocks gently and signs along: baby.

The “Sign and Play” class is led by Abbey Cook, a licensed speech language pathologist and founder of Communication Junction in Peoria. Its series of classes and all-ages story times promote early communication, she explains, with a myriad of potential co-benefits, from reducing toddlers’ tantrums to improving their early reading skills. According to some research, such instruction can lead to larger vocabularies—and even increased IQ—later in life.

And with such touted benefits, it’s no surprise the sessions are popular. Cook has gone from a single weekly class when she opened the school in 2009 to 13 weekly classes today—plus three to five story times. To manage this load—some 120 families each week in the registered classes alone—she’s hired three new instructors in the last year. But despite the increased interest, Cook declines to call baby sign language for hearing infants “trendy.” In fact, she asserts, it’s been around forever: there’s just more research coming out now about its longstanding benefits.

Building Bigger Brains
According to Cook, sign language creates a synaptic connection between both halves of the brain that ordinarily doesn’t occur. “Think about your brain as a catalogue,” she advises. “I’ll teach you the words red and rojo, so now you have two ‘cards’ in the index on [one] side of your brain that mean ‘red.’”

Incorporating a visual language, such as sign language, adds yet another “card” to the catalogue, but because the visual cortex is on the opposite side of the brain, “you’re creating connections that are not typically created,” she explains. “Basically, your brain is getting bigger.”

With that in mind, Cook suggests that early exposure to sign language, even briefly, can impact children in a very significant way. “Even if you only sign with them for a short while or through those first preverbal thinking months, the impact is lifelong.”

These benefits aren’t limited to sign language either. The advantages of early exposure to a second language—a sizeable boost in cognitive, memory and listening skills—are enticing growing numbers of parents to enroll their babies in foreign language classes. And the younger they start, the more likely they are to become fluent in a second language.

A Creative Approach
Denise Leitch slides nimbly into a tiny desk chair in a classroom at her bilingual learning center. She can better gauge her students’ worldview from here, she laughs, animatedly describing her evolving lesson plans. Born and raised in Chile between Spanish-speaking parents and a French immersion school, Leitch came to Peoria for a student exchange program and stayed for love; her husband is a Morton native.

Dissatisfied with local language offerings—and armed with a teaching background and a high-energy spirit—Leitch set out to start the area’s first language and culture school, teaching Spanish through private, in-home classes. Set on expansion, she opened Lingua Garden in Peoria Heights last year. The first of its kind in the area, the center offers a variety of Spanish classes for children of all ages, including a dual-immersion preschool and a weekly “Parent and Tots” class for one- to three-year-olds.

From its length and consistent routine to each lesson’s content and format, Leitch’s background in psychology heavily influences the class geared for her youngest learners. “At this age, you’re really being more sensitive to a child’s emotional needs,” she explains. “Are they comfortable? Are they scared? Because with the language itself, they’re little sponges: you don’t even need to be worried about what you’re teaching them.”

The parents are more challenging, she notes, because their active involvement—which includes bringing the language back home—is critical for learning. The “Parent and Tots” evening classes seek to engage both in an active format—shifting from an activity on the floor to one at a table, from song to dance, craft to snack—the fluid transitions offering evidence of a well-prepared instructor.

“We’re doing the same vocabulary… different activities, and we’re moving,” Leitch says. “That’s the key at this age.” It’s a challenge to teach children so young, but it’s important, she adds, noting a window of opportunity that tends to close around age 12. “By then… you’re not able anymore, physically, to replicate or hear certain sounds, because you haven’t been exposed to them, and you really will not be able to tell the difference.”

If you can’t hear the sound, you can’t create it. That’s not to say you can’t learn the language later, she explains, but you’ll likely have an accent.

Clarify and Connect
In action, early language learning can be quite messy. “Kids don’t necessarily learn language in a linear way,” Cook says. “They learn based on their environment.” But in targeting certain words from the start, she explains how sign language can benefit early development, providing young learners the tools to communicate even before they can find the words to do so.

For instance, signs like “milk,” “all done” and “diaper” can help them have their basic needs met, but getting there takes time. Thus, her youngest classes focus on building imitation skills. “You can’t expect your little one to tell you ‘milk’ if they’re not imitating other actions,” she explains. “That’s the progression of language development. They have to be able to clap; they have to be able to do ‘peekaboo,’ or ‘patty-cake,’ or ‘If you’re happy and you know it.’ They need to be able to imitate motor actions before they can add communication behind it.”

Communication Junction caters to infants, toddlers and preschoolers, and the benefits vary with age. For the youngest, the goal is to get them to sign before they can communicate verbally. For toddlers, it’s about clarifying messages and building vocabulary: a simple hand sign can clarify a message for a toddler who’s using the word “truck” for “duck, “stuck” and “truck.” And for preschoolers, signing is an interactive way to expand their learning, Cook adds, as counting, signing the alphabet and working on pre-literacy skills are “going to help those kids connect to books, connect to reading and connect to math.”

Paths of Learning
“Is it ever too much? Are you going to confuse your child?” Leitch is often asked these questions by anxious parents. “They’re like, ‘They’re mixing the language; they’re not understanding me,’” she says. “I say, ‘No, no, no, no, no… that’s okay.’”

Language mixing—when a child combines two or more languages in the same utterance before they’re aware the languages are separate and distinct—is natural with multilingualism, and he or she sorts it out with time. Thus, language delay is another common concern, Leitch says, and similarly unwarranted in the context of multilingualism.

“My kindergarteners and first graders are getting both languages all the time,” she explains. “They’re doing math in both languages, reading in both… so, yes, sometimes they’re not going to be like the average [monolingual] student. But they catch up. And once they’re there… they will be thinking ahead, because they’re being exposed not only to the experience [of two languages], but also to other ways of thinking about things.”

Leitch quotes research suggesting that multilingual children tend to be more creative, more positive and more empathetic. “They’re not necessarily looking at one angle of a problem; they’re looking at multiple ones,” she explains. But in adding a se cond (or third or fourth) language, she notes, consistency and interaction are key—and so is knowing your child: How do they learn best?

As both teacher and parent, Leitch strives to understand each child’s individual learning style so she can incorporate the methods that work best. “No one learns the same way,” she notes. “I try to do as much as I can… That way, I don’t leave anybody behind.”

Cook’s classes are well-rounded as well, with a curriculum that runs the gamut—from shoes to food to family to bath time. This exposes children to a variety of different situations, “since you don’t know what’s going to pique their interest.” And that’s the beauty of early language development, she suggests—it’s fluid.

Back in the Sign and Play classroom, Cook whips out a bottle of bubbles and pinches her index finger and thumb together to make small circle shapes in the air. The parents sign along, doting on their little ones. Research in the field suggests a baby can learn “a great deal when he feels important,” creating a more confident communicator and a more confident person. Research aside, the tots squeal, popping the bubbles. One little girl claps her fists together in a simplified version of the sign for "more": flattened hands in an "O" shape coming together and separating repeatedly. Absorbed in the environment, they’re oblivious that they’re learning at all. a&s

Visit for a listing of Communication Junction’s classes and story times. For more information on Lingua Garden, visit