Joann Woolley has taught American Sign Language to thousands of San Diego’s smallest denizens, and in the process has cultivated a sort of rock star status on the local mommy circuit. Her Sign4Baby classes and story times are all the rage at local libraries, pediatrician offices and family-friendly coffee shops. Sign4Baby’s social media fan base — more than 1,100 on Facebook and 1,500 on Twitter — grows daily.

With three children of her own ages 5 and under, Woolley is among a new generation of moms who combine parenting with homegrown businesses. As the jargon goes, she’s a “mompreneur.”

Her clientele is the modern parent, too. They’re erudite parents who want to offer their offspring some form of education before they’re even out of diapers. Woolley says her classes are best suited to infants between 6 months and 15 months. The parents are not deaf, nor are the children. These are parents hoping to translate some of that baby babble into meaningful conversation.

ASL for infants has gained popularity nationally in recent years with a number of companies offering classes, instructional books and videos, and instructor certification programs.

Woolley’s vocation required no formal training. She’s been using sign language since she was a baby herself. Her own mother is deaf, and as the oldest child became her mom’s de facto interpreter.

After a Sign4Baby class at Scripps Ranch’s JavaMama coffeehouse, over the happy clatter of children and an espresso machine, Woolley sat down to talk with me about virtues of ASL, the wonders of cold grapes and how sign language could point the way to a more compassionate society.

First off, a logistical question: How are parents supposed to have enough hands to use sign language and keep up with a baby and all their gear? One of the moms in your class just now even had twins to keep up with.

I was holding one of her babies in the class. I do that on purpose. During a song it’s perfect because I can show them that I know you can’t sign perfectly when your other hand is busy. But it shows them that you can still sign effectively.

You’re very animated while you’re signing. Is there a certain element of entertainment to your classes, especially since you’re dealing with babies?

I do use way more facial expression when I sign than when I’m not signing. You have to get down at their eye level and look at them in the eye because that’s what they need to pick up what you’re saying. Signing ties in to that eye contact that pediatricians and child development experts say is so critical to their learning.

The funny thing about that, growing up I would never try out for a play, if I was in choir I definitely didn’t want to have a solo. I wouldn’t say I was necessarily shy, I just didn’t want to be the center of attention.

But when I went to college, I realized that in the real world no one is just going to hand you the spotlight. If you want to make a difference, then you have to create it for yourself.

This type of communication has its limitations. A baby who learns ASL can only use it with people who also know ASL, right?

A lot of moms think, well, we’re doing this, but how do I get Grandma to do it, or Auntie, or even Dad? Dads end up being the biggest fans of it. Moms develop what I call the “mommy ear.” Baby says “ba-ba” and mom knows whether it’s “bottle” or “bye-bye.” They can tell the little nuances in their child’s verbalization. Dads, maybe not so much.

So why teach traditional ASL, versus some of the baby sign programs that tell parents to invent hand gestures to use with their babies?

I’m a little biased, but I’ve read that children understand the language more than just gestures. I met a mom who was case in point: She had been doing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” with her daughter to keep her busy while diaper changing. Her daughter liked the song well enough, but wasn’t necessary tracking it with her. The first or second class she attended, I taught them the actual ASL signs to talk about the spider versus doing the gesture. Her daughter started to ask her to do the sign language for “Itsy Bitsy Spider” when they got to the changing table. It was perfect proof that they will understand the language more than just gestures.

What does the deaf community think of people who aren’t deaf learning to use sign language?

They think it’s wonderful. Absolutely. In fact, if I ever encounter someone who’s deaf when we’re out, I’ll take my daughter or my son over and introduce myself to them and let them know what I do.

When my daughter first started signing I thought, wow, I have hardly ever wondered what my baby is thinking. So I asked my mom, did you ever wonder what I was thinking? She said, no, I had no reason to. We always had conversation.

Do you intend with your classes to teach a second language, or to bridge this time before babies have mastered verbal communication?

I think originally why people sign up is they’ve heard that sign language can reduce the frustration of not knowing what your baby wants. Especially between age 12 months and 2 1/2, when they still don’t have all of their words really clearly, that 18-month timeline is really tricky and frustrating.

However, I think people continue to do sign language and are inspired to learn more than 10 or 15 signs by how neat it is to have a conversation with their 1-year-old. Instead of just that the 1-year-old is asking for crackers or grapes, they know that their baby really likes the grapes, and oh, these grapes are cold!

What do you think of ASL as a second language, for any age?

I always thought it was neat that I had that as a gift. It’s the third most commonly used language in the U.S.: English, then Spanish, then ASL. Not a lot of people are aware of that.

Is sign language different in other countries?

Yes, American Sign Language is here in the U.S. In Mexico, for instance, it’s Mexican Sign Language.

So you couldn’t go to Mexico and sign?

No, unfortunately. I do have the question come up from moms who are bilingual already, who are teaching their baby Spanish. They ask me, do I need to learn how to sign Mexican Sign Language? The answer is no. You just need one visual language. For example, “leche,” you would want to say “milk” and say “leche” and sign “milk” (she demonstrates clenching her fist, like milking a cow), and it would actually help their baby pick up what those two verbal words mean.

So it kind of connects them?

It connects the dots.

Do you think there’s a difference between learning a visual language versus a spoken language?

It’s so much easier. The reason is not only are a lot of us are very visual learners, but it’s a kinesthetic or tactile experience. The touch aspect of it helps you to recall the sign. I don’t think very many of us are great auditory learners. With verbal languages, you have to have an ear to listen to the nuances.

You tell your students that sign language is a more compassionate language.

I teach parents, you are now showing your child how they can act when they feel a certain way. I think that’s a big piece of it: if you know how to channel your emotions, you can have compassion for someone else who is feeling that way.

If you can allow your child to get beyond just 10 or 15 signs to get their needs met, you are doing them a great service. They’ll have a deeper understanding of people in general, a greater sense of compassion. What we all ultimately want in life is to be understood. If it’s true what I’ve read, that in 7 to 10 years all babies will be exposed to sign language, I look forward to that day to see how a different generation of children interacts with each other.

Interview conducted and edited by Jennifer McEntee. She can be reached at

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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