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.
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
- Enhances self esteem
- Strengthens parent/infant
- Accelerates the speech
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Choose one word per week
to work on
- Learn the sign and/or
- 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,
- 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
- Lonner, S. (1997). Hyperlink
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.
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.