Sign and Speech and Language Development
Parents often wonder about using baby sign and how sign impacts speech and language development. Sign language and baby sign are not the same. American Sign Language (ASL) is an official language. It follows its own vocabulary, grammar, and social rules. ASL uses hands, fingers, facial expressions, and body gestures to express wants and needs, and for socialization. Similar to Standard American English, ASL has its own culture and community.
Contrary to ASL, Baby Sign is not its own language. Instead, it consists of manual signs and gestures that originate from ASL, or modified from ASL. It is used to improve communication between infants or toddlers, and their caregivers. In Baby Sign, signs and gestures are taught in conjunction with speech and language.
Whether using ASL or Baby Sign, research strongly supports that a child’s speech and language development can benefit. In this article, I will discuss the research that supports this statement. Additionally, how caregivers might implement sign language or baby sign with their developing infant or toddler.
Will Sign Negatively Impact My Child’s Ability to Develop Spoken Language?
In short, the answer is “no.” Parents often express their concern that use of sign early on will delay the onset of spoken language. Researchers Goodwyn, Acredolo, and Brown (2000) suggest that using sign, and other augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) approaches may facilitate spoken language versus inhibiting it.
Furthermore, a research review completed by Millar and Light (2006) supports that use of sign does not prevent children from talking. Research also supports that any AAC option (e.g., speech generating device or picture exchange) can help facilitate spoken language. Per Millar and Light, the use of AAC supports both young and older children to communicate. It also serves as a functional language system.
Will Sign Benefit Children with Speech Difficulties?
Research supports that sign can be an alternative to verbal expression for children who have difficulties with oral motor control (e.g., Childhood Apraxia of Speech). For these children, sign may be easier to teach than oral language. The benefit is, sign can be physically prompted by a caregiver (e.g., hand over hand to teach signs). Just as sign can help to facilitate language, it can also help facilitate speech.
Other Benefits of Sign:
According to babysignlanguage.com, use of sign can reduce frustration, and eliminate tantrums and meltdowns. It allows the child to consistently communicate what they want or need. When communication improves, a closer bond between the child and their caregiver can develop. Relationships are built on communication, understanding, and feelings of closeness. Therefore, there is a significant social-emotional benefit of using sign. Research also shows that early exposure to sign aids children’s language acquisition. Additionally, research shows long-term cognitive benefits including:
- A 12+ IQ point advantage
- Increased expressive vocabulary
- Increased ability to form phrases and sentences
- Early literacy skills
- Positive academic outcomes (e.g., good grades in school)
We Understand the Benefit – So Now What?
To begin using sign with your infant, toddler, or child, start by introducing yourself to sign. Use resources including: books, websites, or other sources. Reach out to your child’s speech therapist, or other specialists, to obtain resources. Here are some things to keep in mind when getting started:
- Start simple. Use signs that can be incorporated into your child’s daily routine. This includes requests, activities, and objects from their environment (e.g., eat, drink mom, dad, please). Ask your speech therapist for a list of common first words if you need a place to get started.
- Don’t forget about eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, and pointing. These prelinguistic acts to communication help support the development of speech and language for your child.
- Keep things interactive. Model using signs when communicating with your child. Signs help provide context and understanding. For example, introduce signs during activities such as feeling, bathing, or reading to your child. Before you can expect your child to start using signs, you need to be consistent in your own use of signs.
- Lend a helping hand. Once you have exposed your child to sign in their environment, start helping them sign back to you. As appropriate, give them hand-over-hand supports to use signs that might be difficult for them at first.
- Be patient. If your child is not using signs correctly at first, that’s ok! If your child does not start using sign right away, that’s ok too! Remember, the goal is to improve communication, not to add more frustration.
- Set realistic expectations. You may start signing with your child at any age. But remember: many children cannot use sign until 8 months or older.
Sign positively impacts the speech and language development of your baby. So start today! Here are some more tips for starting sign with your baby.
Baby Sign Language (2020). Benefits of baby sign language. https://www.babysignlanguage.com/basics/benefits/.
Goodwyn, S., Acredolo, L., & Brown, C. (2000). Impact of symbolic gesturing on early language development. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 24, 81-103.
Hoeckler, J. L. (2019). Infant and toddler health – Is baby sign language worthwhile? Mayo Clinic.org.
Millar, D., Schlosser, R. W., & Light, J. C. (2006). The impact of augmentative and alternative communication intervention on the speech production of individuals with developmental disabilities: A research review. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 49, 248-264.
Speech and Language Kids by The SLP Solution. Can sign language help children with speech delays? https://www.speechandlanguagekids.com/using-sign-language/.