It’s essential to understand that American Sign Language (ASL) is a language completely separate and distinct from English. It contains all the fundamental features of language—it has its own semantics and syntax, specific grammatical rules. The adjective typically comes before the noun, which is different than English and more like Spanish or French. English speakers ask a question by raising the pitch of their voice; ASL users ask a question by raising their eyebrows and widening their eyes.
Like spoken languages, sign languages have regional differences and variations, but those tend to be understood and adopted by each local Deaf community. Home signs are different, and usually remain within the home. Since not every family learning to sign has a Deaf family member, and those that do don’t always have access to a local Deaf community or mentor, they may create home signs. In addition, there’s not a word for word translation from English to ASL – some words are also finger-spelled which can be tricky for very young children to produce at first. Yogurt, for example, is a word that has a couple of sign variations typically used by kids but the word tends to be finger-spelled in adult conversation.
So home signs can be useful – their consistent use and their use within the rules of ASL is what helps them to become purposeful language-based signs as opposed to simple gestures. Many young children create their own spoken words for things around them, and the same can happen in sign language.
Gestures are distinct from manual signs in that they do not belong to a complete language system, rather they enhance the use of spoken language. For example, pointing to indicate interest in an object is a widely used gesture that is understood by many cultures. Manual signs, however, are gestures that have become a lexical element in a given language. When communicating in ASL, signs take the place spoken words.
There is some solid research demonstrating the benefits of gestural or manual communication in early language acquisition and development, and other important research indicating that the incorporation of ASL in early childhood is what benefits language development and opens the doors to bilingualism. At Baby Fingers we work with Deaf and hearing families, offering ASL through songs and play. We aim to foster family bonding and communication while jumpstarting language acquisition and bilingualism, and providing exposure to Deaf culture. We believe that accessible language and family support are essential to all children, regardless of hearing status, needs or abilities.