Learning to Sign Benefits All Young Children
By Debbie Fitzgerald, M.S.

Waving “bye-bye” and nodding “yes” and “no” are usually considered a child’s first attempt at meaningful two-way communication. But communication does not have to stop there. American Sign Language (ASL) was the fastest growing language among the hearing population in the 1990s. ASL can enhance communication for all populations: hearing, hard of hearing, deaf, slow speaking and special needs children and adults. But teaching all children sign language allows an adult to jump-start a child’s language learning and stimulate her cognitive growth.

“Signing provides an interesting window into a child’s early thought process which allows a meeting of the minds between the parent and child that would otherwise not be there for months,” according to Linda Acredolo, Professor of Psychology at the University of California Davis. ASL is manual language that does not require speech to communicate; instead it uses simple gestures that represent words/actions/emotions. Children can use this language to communicate once their memory function and motor coordination (fine/gross) are developed—as early as 6 months.

For example, tapping two fists together is the sign for “more.” A child is capable signing this word about the time she can sit up or play patty-cake, according to Acredolo. In contrast, the articulatory/phonological processes necessary to even approximate the identical spoken word are not mastered for about 6 months following the mastery of the hand coordination needed to sign the concept. The child often uses the signs in conjunction with the spoken word and a gross approximation of the word. Following many attempts, she will master the spoken word; at this point the child will tend not to use the sign as often.

Christy Howard, a social worker, linguist and mother of an almost 2-year-old, has been an ASL interpreter for years. Christy began signing with her son Tristan right after he was born. She considers his outgoing personality one of the benefits of signing and feels that the total communication approach should be used when modeling language to children. Tristan’s paternal grandparents are deaf. Tristan’s hearing is just fine. Christy states that Tristan first signed at 6 months, and his signing vocabulary is at least five times larger than his verbal vocabulary. Tristan’s ability to sign has enabled the family to surpass the obstacles of the spoken language. By signing, Christie is able to key into his needs, wants and emotions when he is eagerly seeking communication. ASL reduces the frustration caused by the “pull, point and grunt” method of communicating at this age.

Acredolo, who co-authored the “Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test” study, discovered that, “Children taught signing during the toddler stage talk earlier, have larger vocabularies and seem to have a better comprehension of the concepts behind words.” Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn discovered that the signing group achieved an average intelligence quotient of 12 points higher than the non-signing group of children.

However, advocates of signing with children warn that signing should not be used as a “super baby” genius tool. Teaching ASL to a child should begin with demonstrating a minimum of signs to label daily activities and objects encountered in the immediate environment. Children learn signs and words through repetition. Why not sign anything that is said or done more than four times a day? ASL enables the child to explore, label and sign her everyday activities, even when the words are not in her vocabulary. As the child’s signing vocabulary grows, the caregiver can add additional signs to meet her communication needs.

Kim Whaley, an associate professor of Human Development and Family Science of Human Ecology and the coordinator of the Ohio State University’s Infant-Toddler Laboratory School, has instructed children using signs within the classroom setting. Teachers and infants as young as 9 months have learned to use sign language as a part of the program. When an infant at their program wants to eat, instead of crying, she can simply use the sign to show the teacher she wants a bottle. Kim says, “It is a great way for infants to express their needs before they can verbalize them.” Kim states that some of the common signs taught at their program including “eat,” “more,” “stop” and “share” have made it a great success.

ASL is a language that provides visual, auditory and physical-kinesthetic inputs. Teaching a child ASL while modeling the English word provides the information both orally and manually. In order for a child to master a spoken language, she must consistently match the visual and auditory cues provided by the speaker to the vocalizations thousands of times, while attempting to approximate what was heard and seen by the speaker she is trying to mimic. This matching process is very difficult for children with middle ear infections; the same word presented by the same speaker is heard differently depending on the amount of fluid. Children with multiple or constant middle ear infections need to be evaluated by an otolaryngologist and have their hearing tested by an certified audiologist.

A 1991 study by Esther Thelan and Beverly D. Ulrich estimated that “Seventy sound and muscle movements are necessary to speak a word. Many of these sounds and muscle movements are visually unavailable to the child trying to figure out how to speak.” In ASL, the hands and fingers are visible and do the talking. It only takes the motor/muscle coordination to form the sign after the visual mental image is set. This allows the child to sign the word much sooner than the same word could be expressed orally.

Joesph Garcia, a Seattle-based child development researcher who has developed a program called “Sign with your Baby,” advocates using ASL in daycare settings. Garcia maintains that signing in the childcare environment benefits both the babies and their caregivers. Utilizing ASL in the classroom setting has been shown to “reduce noise levels in the classrooms, minimize stress and frustration for the childcare providers and infants, significantly reduces problems with biting; and helps to illustrate the fact that the childcare facility actively participates in the child’s development.” Additional programs that can benefit from teaching providers ASL are adoption agencies, au pair agencies and special needs classrooms.

Learning ASL also provides infants and toddlers themselves some distinct benefits. Cindy Findling and John Houlton, producers of Signing Language for Kids tapes state, “Research indicates that learning any second language before the age of 6 stimulates a child’s cognitive development. Children’s brains have almost twice the number of synapses [than those of] adults. This means their brains are more receptive to input such as language. These early years provide a ‘window of opportunity’ for language learning, during which languages can be acquired quickly and easily. ASL is different enough from English to be learned and stored in a separate part of the brain than English. It has its own unique grammar, morphology, and ways of expressing concepts.” ASL is also capable of tying two different languages together. The ASL sign is the same no matter what language the parent is speaking. According to Dr. Susan Curtiss, Professor of Linguistics at UCLA, preschool children can learn several languages at once if they are taught them systematically. “Children just have this capacity. Their brains are ripe for language.” Findling and Houlton conclude that, “ASL has the capacity to stretch the brain, to use children’s multitude of synapses, and to stimulate their cognitive growth.” They state that, “ASL is suited to children because it uses the visual/spatial and hand/motor skills that children are developing. Preschoolers naturally want to explore the world and express themselves with their hands and bodies. ASL provides this kinesthetic experience plus the second language benefits as well."

MeaningFull Hands, Inc., is a Washington metropolitan nonprofit agency that provides educational American Sign Language workshops. Workshops concentrate on instructing how to incorporate American Sign Language gestures into daily activities for populations of all ages. A one-time commitment to a two-hour workshop for parents/teachers/daycare/healthcare providers/nannies/aupairs/doctors interested in learning to use ASL is usually all it takes to get started. MeaningFull Hands, Inc. also provides a list of professionals to contact for resources if there is a speech/language/hearing or developmental concern. Other services include “train-the-trainer” workshop for daycare centers, schools, nursing home staff, nanny/aupair agencies as well as special theme classes for those interested in incorporating ASL into their daily curriculum. MeaningFull hands, Inc. is currently seeking sponsorships and donations from companies and individuals interested in helping spread the word regarding the benefits that can be achieved by teaching ASL. Founder Debbie Fitzgerald is committed to bringing ASL to any population that can benefit from this valuable communication tool that can change daily interactions and boost self esteem for a lifetime. Additional American Sign Language products include: Complete Learning Kit, Quick Reference Guides, Sign with your Baby books, and educational placemats (alphabet, numbers, food(s), seasons, colors, manners, and family), and tapes regarding signing for various age groups. Email for current prices, check out our website; which includes a list of additional articles. For more information, contact: MeaningFull Hands, Inc., http://www.meaningfullhands.org, email meaningfullhands@aol.com , or write to 14725 Lock Drive, Virginia 20120, or call 703-968-6521.