Baby Sign Language – Beneficial

As a former student of American Sign Language Interpreting, I am a strong advocate of teaching Sign Language to infants. I have seen it in practice and I believe it is extremely beneficial for bonding, communication, and speech development.

Some people believe that since you are using non-vocal words, the baby will not learn to talk. Quite the opposite is true. Babies who learn sign language actually develop their speech skills earlier than those who do not. How can that be? Teaching a language that uses gross motor skills instead of the fine motor skills that are required for oral speech is easier for the child to grasp. This means that they can learn to utilize the language earlier than an oral language. Understanding language, and that certain words have a meaning-such as what a “shoe” is, or the color “blue”, etc-is vital for oral language development. If they understand that words have meanings, and that objects have names, they are on their way to speaking!

In a recent interview with MSNBC, Dr. Lynn Wegner stated, “Communication is communication. Signing, Gesturing, using communication boards and other assistive methods are all acceptable in the very young child who is trying to get his message accross and understand what others say to him.” In short, signing allows the infant to communicate, decreasing the amount of tantrums, screams and guesswork. Parents who sign with their babies will find that their infants can tell them exactly what they want, rather than trying to decipher why their infant is crying. My nephew, for example, has been able to ask for food before he could speak. My sister can’t imagine how much he (and she!) would cry before she figured out what he wanted. Now, he simply makes a simple sign, and she knows exactly what he wants.

In rare cases, the child has speech delays even if taught sign language early on. A possible cause is that the parents use only sign language in place of their native tongue. This is one of the very few causes for speech problems in signing infants, aside from pre-existing conditions. An infant who is taught sign language properly will see the sign and hear the word simultaneously, reinforcing the meaning of the sign, the spoken word, and the object in question. If the child does not have this reinforcement, then yes, they may have speech delays. But this is in the rare case that a parent would not speak to their infant at all, as infants pick up language by immersion and should still learn at a normal rate whether they are taught sign language or not.

Also, it is hard to determine whether the child was already “destined” to have a speech delay. I use that term loosely, as it is the only word that seems to fit. If a child already had a hindrance in their speech, it is difficult to say whether it was the sign language that delayed them, or a learning disorder. In those cases, we must look at the majority of signing infants who are advanced in speech development, and we must also assume that there was something else that the child was deficient in, and it simply wasn’t diagnosed yet.

Other times, parents think their child is delayed, when really there is a wide window of opportunity. One of my nieces started speaking before she was a year old. Her cousin, a month older, didn’t talk until she was almost two years old! Different children have different timelines for their development, and that must be taken into account when examining each case of speech delay.

Additionally, babies who are taught sign language are taught by their parents. These parents are clearly active in their child’s educational journey, and this is helpful in any learning environment. A supportive parent is a necessity when it comes to a child’s education, no matter the age or subject.

Signing is beneficial not only for speech development and to relieve frustration but it can also create a source of bonding between parent and child. Teaching the child by watching videos, reading books, or simply having one-on-one time is great for an infant’s emotional health. THe infant will enjoy spending time with their parents, and will feel secure and satisfied when they are able to ask for what they want, rather than live through the frustration of trying to communicate and not be able to do so.

It must be concluded, then, that any type of communication-signing, speaking, pictures-can be beneficial for a child not only intellectually and developmentally, but also emotionally. It is my opinion that all parents ought to teach some kind of early communication that the child can use early on, to reduce frustration. Every parent has their choice, and those who choose not to sign ought not to look down upon those who do, and vice-versa. Differences in opinion should be respectfully given in such discussions. Communication, after all, is the key.