Does ASL help speech & language development?

Does ASL help speech & language development?

Because of the article I shared yesterday on our Facebook page, some people have expressed interest in my take on the research on baby signs and my professional opinion on its usefulness. This isn’t the first time this has come up, and it probably won’t be the last.

The short version: I take a neutral stance. I don’t recommend sign language to augment spoken language when an infant is hearing just fine, but I don’t recommend against it, either. In hearing children, language develops optimally through hearing the speech sounds of the language. However, I always encourage bilingualism, so if parents intend to use American Sign Language (ASL) permanently as the second language in their home, that’s awesome!

But when I say ASL, I mean ASL, NOT baby signing. Baby “sign” is not technically sign language; it is a group of gestures that often resemble real ASL. Some of them don’t even resemble ASL signs. They are often taught by people whose first language is not ASL, and are hence susceptible to second language errors. It’s kind of like me trying to teach my infant Russian after watching lesson 1 of a video called “Baby Russian Time.”

When it comes to language development, spoken language and real sign languages manifest themselves similarly during development. (Check out developmental milestones here). An infant learning to sign exclusively will babble using her fingers just like a speaking infant will babble with her lips. First words in speakers appear at the same time as first words in signers (12 months). Combining words occur at the same time as well (24 months). This is because the same parts of the brain involved in storing, retrieving, and using vocabulary are involved in both speaking and signing. The difference comes at the point of expression. In speaking, parts of the brain responsible for controlling breathing and movement of the voicebox, tongue, jaw, and lips are activated. In signing, parts of the brain involved in controlling the movement of the shoulders, arms, hands, and fingers are in control. (This is a very simplistic description of the neurology and physiology of each of these!).

Parents and caregivers who use “baby sign” have a tendency to face their infants more, talk to their infants more, and demonstrate overall increased interaction with their infants. The fact that some of these infants excel during their language development speaks very little to their exposure to baby signs, per se. There are far too many variables affecting their development to reasonably assume that baby signs were the key. Plus, randomized and controlled trial research has found no evidence that baby signing helps vocabulary development.

So why the craze over baby signs? I really don’t know. But much like the now debunked Baby Einstein video series, baby sign instruction is immensely profitable for the creators of such programming. That could be one reason for the fad.

So what does a parent do with all this information? Do what has been shown in piles and piles of research evidence: talk non-stop, face to face, about everything, with your kids (click here to read the article on this topic). Use lots of exciting gestures. If baby signing is a way to help you face your baby more, then that’s fine, too.


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