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SIGNS OF A NEW BABY TALK

Parents are taking their tykes to baby sign language classes for another means of connecting.

It's time for the Baby Sign Language class at Hudson Regional Library, and the babies aren't being all that cooperative.

Some sleep, others nurse or simply peer curiously at youth coordinator Karen Correa as her hands dance the words to children's songs like Pick Me Up or Dear Zoo.

Ty Denninger, 1, has his legs, so he mostly wanders, pausing occasionally to check out the other babies, bob and weave to the upbeat music or snatch and cuddle the stuffed animals Correa uses to teach the words "dog," "cow" and "pig."

Even so, his mom is confident Ty is catching on.

"He does "milk," says Gretchen Denninger, who knows well that when it comes to teaching anything to a kid that age it takes time, patience, perseverance and more than a little leeway.

Right now Denninger is concentrating on learning American Sign Language herself and trying to pass just a few essential signs on to her son: "milk," "more," "food, "up."

That's wise, says Correa, who tells parents to take what they've learned in her class and make it part of their daily routine at home.

It could take months, but eventually they'll get it.

While starting early has its benefits, there's no real rush. Learning American Sign Language isn't a necessity for these children. All can hear, it seems, perfectly fine. Sign language is just a way to enhance communication skills between the babies and their parents or caretakers when the spoken word is yet to come.

And perhaps it can help head off some trying times down the road.

"It kind of reduces the terrible twos," Correa said. "Kids can't communicate well verbally at that age. Sign language can reduce some of the frustration with that. And some studies show that using sign language in elementary school helps with early literacy skills."

In recent years, teaching hearing children like Ty how to sign their words has exploded in popularity. Do a Web search and you'll find thousands of hits for books and programs being offered at sites throughout the country.

About 15 babies, and their parents, and sometimes grandparents, come each week, said Correa. She decided to add the Baby Sign Language class to ongoing youth programs after hearing that Denninger and other patrons were traveling to libraries in Pinellas County that were hosting sign language classes.

"I said, 'Hey, I can teach that,'" said Correa, who learned American Sign Language after discovering that her youngest daughter, Allison, 5, was deaf. Allison's hearing problem was masked by other health problems so it wasn't discovered until she was 3, Correa said.

But since learning American Sign Language, Correa has watched her daughter blossom.

"She's doing fantastic soaking it all up" she said. "I'm trying to keep up with her now."

There is a definite upside to teaching American Sign Language to others, Correa said, adding that she enjoys the interaction she witnesses between moms and their babies.

"And it gets them out. They're networking. They're learning something new."

"I am learning a lot and she's kind of doing her own thing," said Amy Fox, who has been attending the Sign Language class and the Baby Story Time program along with her 4-month-old daughter, Chloe.

The Fox family recently moved to Florida from New Jersey. The library programs have helped broaden their new world and curb some of the isolation that sometimes comes with being a stay-at-home mom.

"She really likes seeing the other kids," Fox said. "And this is our way to get out. Other than (going to) the grocery store, this is it."

IF YOU GO

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Sign language classes for babies from birth to age 2 and their parents/caregivers are at 11:30 a.m. each Thursday through Feb. 21 at the Hudson Regional Library, 8012 Library Road. (727) 861-3040; TDD: (727) 861-3024.

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