“Become an early partner with your child as together you dance with the words of ASL. Both your fingers and hands and your child’s fingers and hands can create meaning in the air as you silently exchange messages in sign language. For your child this dance will activate formative links in the developing brain; teach phonics, vocabulary, word recognition, and comprehension; become a precursor to the recognition of print; provoke positive feedback from others; give access to Deaf people; engender feelings of self-worth; and ultimately aid reading and spelling and communicative ability in general. It is a dance with words, to be enjoyed from babyhood, through childhood, to adulthood.”
~ Marilyn Daniels. Dancing With Words: Signing for Hearing Children’s Literacy
Research has demonstrated tremendous benefits to signing with babies. Far from slowing down speech, sign language actually increases the rate of verbal development and at the same time strengthens the parent/child bond. Signing requires more face to face time and eye contact than speech alone, increasing the amount of purposeful time spent together. During this time, baby (deaf or hearing) has more opportunity to not only acquire signs to express him/herself, but to also see lip movements and facial expressions that accompany both the signs and speech. So much is gained from this shared attention. Since very young babies understand their environment and are able to use their hands to self-soothe, manipulate toys, nest cups, and more, they are able to use signs and sign approximations to communicate at a much younger age than they are able to use speech. The oral-motor mechanism is more complex.
For hearing babies, utilizing spoken and signed language in tandem provides an additional foundation for language development and retention of new material; incorporating the same signs with two different spoken languages also supports bilingualism. Becoming bilingual, through sign and speech and/or multiple spoken languages, has a positive impact on cognition and overall brain development. The bimodal aspect of incorporating sign language has been found to further exercise the brain through the use of both hemispheres. While language is processed in the left hemisphere, the right hemisphere is responsible for social communication and visual/spatial movements; balancing the hemispheres through activities that utilize both, like sign language, can improve mental health while enhancing memory and intellectual function, spatial reasoning and problem solving skills.
For babies born deaf, this visual access to language is not only beneficial but truly essential. Language deprivation – when language, signed or spoken, cannot be acquired from birth due to lack of exposure or accessibility – can have a significant negative impact on cognition, socialization, self-esteem and more. From a linguistic point of view, sign languages are complete, natural, and fully realized languages with a phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. Manual babbling in deaf infants (and hearing infants with Deaf, signing parents) has been found to mimic vocal babbling in hearing infants, where similar syllabic and phonetic units are used in a baby’s first step toward linguistic development. Babbling is believed to be tied to the abstract structure of the pre-lingual brain and the human capacity for expression, with the speech modality playing no critical role. However, babies who are deprived of language exposure – spoken or signed – tend to gradually babble less and less. The feedback, repetition, and continued modeling is necessary for language, and the brain overall, to continue developing. For some deaf babies, the use of hearing aids or cochlear implants can provide access to language, yet they continue to miss critical opportunities without the constant use of the devices unless access to sign language is also provided.
A great majority of the Deaf community consider their deafness not to be a disability but rather a cultural difference, with sign language as a central part of the culture. Many hearing parents are concerned that their deaf babies won’t bond with them, make close friends, or become successful if they do not learn to speak, and fear that sign language will impede the process of speech development. This post is not meant to be political or judgmental, but simply to share different beliefs along with the scientific benefits to early language acquisition and use of sign language in the hearing and Deaf communities, for children with and without special needs, as discovered through research in the field.
In 1817, the first school for the Deaf in the United States opened in Hartford, CT. It was co-founded by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a hearing minister and educator, who strongly believed that when hearing and deaf siblings or neighbors signed with one another, the deaf child was able to improve language based communication through social connections and the hearing child was able to improve overall language proficiency. American Sign Language (ASL) was integral in academic and family life.
At Baby Fingers, we teach signs from American Sign Language that babies adapt and modify until they’re able to sign precisely over time. The earlier language is accessible, the younger the baby will communicate. The process is so exciting. We love supporting families through this journey! Learn more at mybabyfingers.com/our-story/ and mybabyfingers.com/success-stories-testimoninals/.
Ask us about resources from research in this area.