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Special Education Articles: Speech and Language Articles: Sign Language: Infants and Toddlers

Sign Language: Enhancing Language Development in Infants and Toddlers

Author: Heather Davidson, Drury College Summer 1999

Heather Davidson wrote this paper to fulfill a class requirement for her masters degree. We are greatful for her contribution.


Sign language has been thought of in the past as a form of communication between deaf people and interpreters, who translate the message into spoken English with the public. Now, sign language is used to communicate with anyone who has a communication disorder; or, more recently, it is taught to infants, both hearing and deaf. Sign language enhances and stimulates an infant's language development. Many studies have been conducted to measure the amount of language development among many infants and toddlers. One test that was used in many of the studies is the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT). It was used with children mostly under the age of 5. The findings of almost all of the studies is that using both spoken English and sign language with an infant can greatly increase the rate and efficiency of language development.

Sign language, to me, has always been something that deaf people used to communicate with one another. Since they could not talk, I figured this was the only way the deaf community could interact with one another. Through the following research, I found that sign language is not used just by the deaf community, but also with people who hear. When parents first heard about teaching infants sign language, their first thoughts were that signing would cause the infants to be lazy in developing the language skills necessary (Layton, 1999). But the opposite is true: using sign language with both deaf and hearing children at an early age can greatly increase their acquisition of language and their academic achievement. I will look at using sign language in three sections: teaching and using sign language with deaf children, hearing children, and in classrooms that contain both hearing and partially deaf (hard of hearing) children.

Using sign language with hearing children to improve their acquisition of language began in the early 19th century. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet wanted the hearing siblings of deaf children to learn sign in order to communicate with them. Now, sign language is not only used with deaf and hard of hearing children, but also those who have Downs syndrome, autism, and communication impairments (Daniels, 1996). Using many modes of learning with sign language helps hearing children to retain the knowledge learned for a longer period of time. The physical, visual, and aural modes are employed when combining sign language with spoken English.

Researchers at the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience in La Jolla, California, have come up with three types of processing when it comes to the neurobiology of sign language.

  • The first is motion processing. Everyone groups patterns of motion, but people who sign show a dominance for grouping in the left hemisphere of the brain. On the other hand, people who do not sign use their right hemisphere to detect and group motion. By learning sign language, both sides of the brain can be utilized in detecting and grouping patterns of motion.
  • The second is face processing. Since American Sign Language (ASL) is a very visual language, signers--people who sign--can detect subtle changes in a person's facial expressions. ASL involves seeing the person as a whole when using signs over many parts of the body. People who do not sign are better at detecting vocal changes and not looking too closely at the facial features. Therefore, they may not detect those little changes in a person's facial expressions.
  • The third type of processing is using mental imagery. In order to sign correctly, signers must translate spoken words into signs. This requires a very fast reaction time, which signers usually have. They have to create the signs that refer to words being spoken. Just think about how closely behind a speaker an interpreter is when signing the words. Also, there are no different words in ASL to say that something happened now and then. Therefore, signers must first establish the time of action with a sign, then sign just as if it were happening right now.

    Grouping motions, processing facial expressions, and using mental imagery combine the modes of learning to aid in the development of language.

There is a critical time period in which infants develop their language skills. Teaching infants as young as six to seven months sign language is not uncommon these days. In her program, "Sign & Say Interactive Language Series," Meredith Layton (1999) tells of the many benefits of communicating sign with your baby. This is only a partial listing of the many benefits.

  • Stimulates intellectual development
  • Enhances self esteem
  • Strengthens parent/infant bonding
  • Accelerates the speech process
  • Provides more opportunities to increase vocabulary
  • Promotes early experience in grammatical form and function
  • Expands social opportunities for communication in a diverse world

A popular book today in teaching infants signs is Baby Signs (Layton, 1999). It covers the process that parents should follow when teaching signs to their infants.

In a personal interview, a hard of hearing mother of three explained how she has taught two of her three daughters sign language. She started with three basic words: milk, eat, and done, or finished. The oldest girl, who is now three and a half, started signing at about seven months. The mother and father--who has no trouble hearing, but is a sign interpreter--would say and sign these words as their daughter was growing, and finally she caught on and would start to sign. It was almost a case of classical conditioning, with the infant knowing what came next when the parents would sign a word. When asked about how the girls' language development was, the mother said they had no problems at all when it came to speaking, since their parents spoke at the same time as signing. By the time each of the girls was two, they had a vocabulary of about 80 signed words, and 20 spoken words they did not know the signs to (Bristol, personal communication, June 24, 1999).

Marilyn Daniels, a professor of Speech Communication at Pennsylvania State University, reviewed several studies regarding the use of sign language in the classroom when taught along with spoken English to hearing children. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of this by presenting cases which showed a significant educational benefit when sign language was taught in conjunction with spoken English (Daniels, 1994). Three of these cases follow.

  • The first case showed that children were using sign at a younger age than using spoken English, and that these languages were learned much earlier than what was considered normal.
  • The second case was showing work done earlier by Prinz and Prinz in 1981. They also studied using both sign language and English at the same time. Their findings showed that children developed a larger vocabulary earlier in life and also, like above, the children used the language at an earlier age than normal. The researchers also found combinations of oral and manual teachings that helped in the enhanced development of language.
  • The third and final case was from a study done by Holmes and Holmes in 1980. They studied a young boy with no hearing difficulties, born to hearing parents, who used both sign language and spoken English as his forms of communication. He said or signed his first words at 26 weeks of age, which is 3 months ahead of schedule. His first 50 words came more than five and a half months ahead of schedule. They concluded that the inclusion of sign language was in part responsible for this earlier development (Daniels, 1994).

Marilyn Daniels conducted a procedure of her own using four pre-K classrooms. Two of the classes were taught sign language along with the curriculum, and the other two classes did not contain sign. Other than that, nothing else differed between the four classes. The two classes that were taught sign language first taught key words, such as sit, stop, stand, walk, and others. During lessons and story time, the teachers would first teach a sign or two based on the subject of the lesson or story. If the story was about a bird, the teachers would show the sign for "bird" and possibly a nest or tree. Then when they came to those words in the story, the children and the teachers would make the signs that were taught. In the end, the two classes that were taught sign language scored 15 points higher on the PPVT than the two classes where there was no sign taught. An explanation why sign language can increase vocabulary scores comes from Piaget's theory about gestures and mime. Infants and toddlers tend to repeat what they see, so signing may come very naturally to them since sign language is a very visible language of gestures (Daniels, 1994).

Over 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents (Lonner, 1997). Since deaf children will eventually learn sign language if they want to, it is very important that they are first taught during that critical time period in infancy. It is also very important to detect any hearing loss early. The optimum time to discover the problem is before the child turns five. This is in association with the critical time period, where a majority of learning takes place. The terms language and speech have been used quite a bit so far, but they are two totally separate things. Language is defined as "a system of symbols, in the brain, representing objects, experiences, actions, and feelings that can be recalled and used to communicate" (Lonner, 1997). As parents are teaching their children, there are a few language concepts Sally Lonner says to keep in mind when combining sign language and spoken English:

  • Choose one word per week to work on
  • Learn the sign and/or speech
  • Bring in the kinesthetic mode and act out the word or words
  • Have toys be the models
  • Have the child listen to the language and perform the concept correctly
  • Have the child use the language and tell you.

According to Erik Drasgow (1998), acquisition of language begins immediately at birth, but it could also begin before birth. Infants who are born deaf or who lose hearing before they develop language will babble in a sort of sign language. Such examples include reaching out with the arms in order to be picked up or holding a cup to their mouth to want a drink. But there were four similarities of this sign babbling to an infant's vocal babbling. First, the deaf infant's babbling contained certain aspects of ASL. Second, the babbling occurred in the right areas where signing occurs. Third, this babbling had the same timetable as a hearing infant's babbling. That is, it took the same amount of time for both the hearing and deaf infants to pass through the babbling stage. Finally, the babbling passed through similar stages to vocal babbling (Drasgow, 1998).

After passing through the babbling stage, the deaf infant will go into what is considered his or her first-word stage. Hearing children will say their first words at about one year. In contrast, a deaf infant will likely sign his or her first word a little sooner. Some reasons for this advanced use of language is that the motor development with the hands has been developing for quite some time, and it takes a while longer for the speaking skills to develop (Drasgow, 1998). For instance, in the personal interview, the mother said that when a hearing infant would say the "b" sound, they could mean anything that begins with the letter "b". But if a child is signing, the sign for the word can make the request much easier to understand. Do they want their bottle, ball, bed, etc? With the sign, a parent can tell right away (Bristol, 1999). Another reason for the early use with sign is that if deaf children are seeing sign language used all the time, it is only natural that they will pick it up quite easily. It is similar to hearing children picking up speaking. They hear it so much that it finally comes naturally to them (Drasgow, 1998).

Infants may be born to pay attention to certain types of motherese. Motherese talk is used to serve three purposes. First, it is able to grab and maintain the infant's attention. Second, it positively affects the language development of infants when they are spoken to in a motherese tone. Third, infants can discriminate certain language characteristics, thus enhancing and expediting verbal development (Masataka, 1996). Japanese sign language is quite different from ASL. When the Japanese mothers are signing to their infants, their signs come much slower than mothers using ASL do. This is also slower than when Japanese women are talking to their adult friends. When signing to their infants, Japanese mothers tend to go slower and also to repeat the same sign over and over. These actions have been related to the American form of motherese, where the mother talks in a slower tone and repeats things over and over to her child (Masataka, 1996). Using this information, researchers have come to the conclusion that an infant may be able to interpret motherese whether it is spoken or given in sign.

With the push toward mainstreaming in education these days, this is also starting to include deaf and hard of hearing students in the regular classroom. Sometimes, depending on the age of the students in the classroom, this might mean teaching some sign to the hearing students so they can communicate with the others. In a preschool on the Tulane college campus, this exact thing happened. Two children with hearing impairments were included in the regular classroom with other hearing 3-year-olds. To facilitate better learning, it was the decision of the two teachers to teach the rest of the class sign language in addition to the regular curriculum. The teachers used both sign language and spoken English. Once the students began learning, they were also encouraged to do the same. The teachers had a question when they considered teaching sign to the class: "Would the second language interfere with the first?" (Heller, Manning, Pavur, Wagner, 1998, p. 50) Using their expertise in the area of early childhood education, the two teachers realized that incorporating sign language with the regular spoken English would make the transition smoother from the concrete to the abstract (Heller, et al, 1998). As the year went on, the parents became involved in the sign language. Some were being taught by their own children at home. The PPVT was given at the end of the year, and those taught sign language had much higher scores than those in the all-English-speaking class (Heller, et al, 1998).

A 4-year-old girl was observed at the Development Center of the Ozarks (DCO) in Springfield on two different days during one week. She was born prematurely, and this, along with being diagnosed with rubella and deafness at two months of age, was part of the reason she is now totally deaf (An Extraordinary Young Lady, 1999). She was being observed to see how a deaf child is learning sign language and applying it in everyday life. While being observed, she attended occupational therapy, physical therapy, and a crafts session. All of the ladies who work with her know at least some sign. If they could not get the sign out exactly, she was able to figure it out. She was a very enthusiastic girl who didn't seem to mind being deaf. She still smiled a lot and would wave hi to anyone she passed in the hall. One of her therapists was asked how she would do in school. If not for the physical disabilities caused by the rubella, she would do fine if her deafness was the only thing she had to deal with. As for how much sign she had learned, she started learning sign less than a year ago, and the ladies started with simple words. She is now up to learning three-word phrases. In the past she would first sign "help." Then it was "help me." While being observed, she was taught "I want help." (An Extraordinary Young Lady, 1999).

At the DCO, there are children who have Downs syndrome, autism, and many other disorders, and most of the teachers use sign with all of the children. Many of the children mumble or have speech impairments, as well as those who are deaf. The teachers can manage all of the students much better and communicate by using sign language.

The relationship between ASL and academic achievement has just been recently discovered. There is a definite positive correlation between the two. As infants and children learn sign language, their academic performance and achievement is positively affected (Drasgow, 1998). With all the research that has gone on, further study is still needed (Daniels, 1994). Keep in mind, we have only been talking about ASL, which means it is only used here in the United States and in Canada. But what effect does ASL have on other cultures? That is the reason research is still needed. As time goes by, much more on this topic will be included in many research projects.


  • Bristol, P., personal communication, June 24, 1999.

  • Daniels, M. (1994). The Effect of Sign Language of Hearing Children's Language Development. Communication Education, 43, 291-298.

  • Daniels, M. (1996). Seeing Language: The Effect Over Time of Sign Language on Vocabulary Development in Early Childhood Education. Child Study Journal, 26, 193-208.

  • Drasgow, E. (1998). American Sign Language as a Pathway to Linguistic Competence. Exceptional Children, 64, 329-342.

  • An Extraordinary Young Lady. (1999, Spring). Support Lines, 5, 10.

  • Heller, I., Manning, D., Pavur, D., & Wagner, K. (1998). Enhancing Language Development in an Inclusive Preschool. Teaching Exceptional Children, 50-53.

  • Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience. (n.d.) Hyperlink The Neurobiology of Sign Language

  • Layton, M. (1999). Sign and Say Interactive Language Series: Baby's First Words. Memphis: Peek A Boo Publishing.

  • Lonner, S. (1997). Hyperlink - How Does Your Child Develop Language Skills?

  • Masataka, N. (1996). Perception of Motherese in a Signed Language by 6-Month-Old Deaf Infants. Developmental Psychology, 32, 874-879.


Heather Davidson
I have known for some time that I am a visual learner. As I was exposed to people using sign language, I became very intrigued with it since sign is a very visual and visible language. Then I found a couple of people who were teaching a basic class in sign. I was very eager to enroll. I knew this couple from going to college with them, so I trusted they would do a good job. I was excited every night of class, and I wanted so much to go somewhere to try out my newly learned words and phrases. Unfortunately, that only happened in class. But in the past four or five years, as I have been in the school setting, I have seen two instances where deaf students were in the regular classroom. They had interpreters with them, but I wanted so much to try to converse with them. I guess this is part of my open-mindedness about people and their differences. I'm glad I can accept people the way they are, because my brother married a girl who was born without legs. She had her own trials, but now is such an outgoing person. Almost nothing can stop her.

My personal reason for wanting to continue with sign is that I want to be able to include those who sign in activities I do. Maybe some day I will be working with deaf children and adults since students are being mainstreamed more and more into the regular classroom. I also know that when I have children, no matter if they are hearing or deaf, I can teach them sign. By proof of all the studies I saw, it will give them a little head start on development and will improve my communication with them. As some can attest, I am not the best guesser in the world.

I have a bachelor's degree in Math/Secondary Education and am currently certified in math 9-12. I teach at a middle school/high school in Houston, Mo. I have attended many workshops on math, computers, and working with middle school and high school students. I am working on my master's degree in middle school education from Drury College in Springfield, Mo.

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