Monday, August 16, 2010

How do you say "I'm drowning" in sign language? Ask a baby - 2010-Aug-15 - CultureMap Houston

How do you say "I'm drowning" in sign language? Ask a baby - 2010-Aug-15 - CultureMap Houston

How do you say "I'm drowning" in sign language? Ask a baby

August 15th, 2010 at 7:57 AM

It's no secret that not every one of us is a Michael Phelps. But when six teenagers drowned while slipping from a wading area into the deep water of a Louisiana river earlier this month, it brought to the fore the issue of just how many Americans are not as swimming savvy as they should be.

According to a 2008 study conducted by researchers at the University of Memphis, almost 54 percent of children between 12 and 18 can barely survive the kiddie pool.

Demographics play a startlingly large role in the stats: African-American children between 5 and 14 years old are more than three times as likely to drown as their white friends. Income also plays a significant role — sixty-seven percent of poor swimmers have a household income less than $49,999.

And it looks like the better-off are sending their toddlers to swimming lessons at earlier ages, even before they have fully mastered talking. So how is it that these tots are lapping older children without being able to even mutter a taunt?

The answer is sign language. Yes, the language of the deaf has beenappropriated by over-involved parents to empower their babies with preemptive communication.

The logic behind teaching toddlers how to sign is that they typically have motor control of their hands and fingers months sooner than their mouths. More parents are now teaching a short vocabulary of American Sign Language, pricey classes are spreading and members-only how-to sites are booming. A baby who signs is the latest status symbol in parenting — consider it the toddler equivalent of sending your teen to study at theSorbonne. Just ask any of the proud parents enrolled in "Words by the Handful" at The Motherhood Center in Montrose.

At River Oaks' Saint Street Swim, not only is it trendy to send a merely months-old tot to swimming lessons — it's also now common to spot a swim instructor baffled by a baby rapidly tossing out signs.

"This baby will be signing at me, and I have no idea if it's saying that it's hungry, wants its mommy or can't handle the backstroke," says Mark Szmania, a Saint Street instructor. "I'm left totally out of the loop."

Hopefully high class swim tutors will catch up before the elite's first-born hit the bottom of the pool, too. Perhaps the only fix for America's swim-savvy deficiency is the arrival of Wii Swim.

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