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I have often heard that using sign language is really good in teaching a baby to talk. Is this really true, or is this an urban legend?

Related: Can toddlers learn sign language?

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do you mean that it helps them speak earlier than they would earlier, or that it helps them to communicate earlier by using sign language than by speaking? There is no doubt that children can communicate earlier with their hands than with spoken words. –  David Mar 30 '11 at 0:26
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I can't say if it accelerates but there is a different advantage: when children master simple sign language, they can express themselves even before they learn to speak, thereby reducing frustration for the child (and the parents). Even though my son can't say what he wants, he sure can tell me, using signs. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Mar 30 '11 at 8:49
    
@tortengb That's a great point! –  Daniel Standage Mar 30 '11 at 13:02

6 Answers 6

up vote 15 down vote accepted

There's been no research that I know of connecting early sign language learning to speaking sooner or better in general. However, learning sign language can make a huge difference in diagnosing speech disorders early enough to treat aggressively and successfully.

By age 3, my son couldn't even say "mama" or "papa". After checking his hearing, oral muscle tone, etc. and not finding problems, the normal assumption is that the child is having trouble understanding language. However, I'd signed around my son, just out of habit, his whole life and he had a rich sign vocabulary that he used in an age-appropriate way. So, scratch comprehension or other cognitive problems.

Because signing gave us a non-verbal way to understand him, we were able to determine that y son has Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS), an oral motor planning disorder. Basically, he has difficulty putting together the intricate sequences of mouth movements necessary to produce speech, even though he can do all those movements on their own.

We don't know any other CAS kids who were correctly diagnosed before age 6, and most we know were not correctly diagnosed until age 8 or 9. Those kids are still struggling to produce intelligible speech at age 10+. My son, now eight, speaks clearly, reads at grade level, and loves Tolkien, Mark Twain, and Jules Verne.

I am infinitely glad that I sign at home -- it made all the difference for us.

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Note that when you say "... learning ASL ...", it'd be more inclusive to say "sign language" here ;-) I'm from Australia, and we sign Auslan here, but your point is valid regardless of country or sign language. –  Yuki Mar 29 '11 at 23:10
    
Edited, thanks. –  HedgeMage Mar 30 '11 at 2:41
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With regard to baby signing research, this is a nice synopsis: babysigningmummy.com/how-can-it-help/science-and-research. –  Kevin Lloyd Mar 30 '11 at 12:41
    
Some studies here: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/… –  Kevin Lloyd Mar 30 '11 at 12:47
    
@KevinLloyd: This modified link gives 4 results: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=Acredolo%20Goodwyn –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Oct 22 '12 at 9:14

It is probably different between children, but I will tell you our experience:

Before we had our first child, we thought parents who taught their kids "sign language" was weird. We weren't planning on teaching our kids how to sign. When our first child was one year old, we would take her to the library and she would grab some board-books - the ones she grabbed we would check out and bring home. One of the books we brought home was a book for babies of babies doing signs. We didn't even teach them to her, she looked at the book on her own, but to our surprise, she starting doing the signs for some of the items in the book!

We started to realize that she was able to communicate using the signs and it reduced her frustration level of not being able to communicate with us. We taught her a few more signs for some common things/activities. We didn't really follow any books, we kind of let her make up her own signs.

By the time she was 2 years old, she signed for a lot of things and was able to communicate pretty well. She hardly ever tried to talk using her words. She knew a few words, and we would teach her the verbal word along with the signs, but she just wasn't interested in talking.

All of a sudden, maybe around 25-26 months, she started talking in full sentences. It was pretty much in the course of 2 weeks, she went from signing all the time to speaking in full sentences and not signing.

I guess the point is, it is probably different for each child. I think the signs helped immensely in the communication barrier with our child early on. I can't help but wonder if she would have been talking earlier if she hadn't signed, but by the time she did talk she was talking very well. We our second child just turned 1 year old, and we are introducing her to some basic signs, but we aren't going to push it on her. We'll see what happens!

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This was my experience, my son has grown up learning Chinese and English but he did not talk until later, the signing helped him get his wishes across to use when he would not speak. It made him a happier kid when he was younger and he still remembers some of it. –  MichaelF Apr 27 '11 at 1:54
    
@BrianH do you remember the name of the book? –  algiogia 23 hours ago

Yes! Research does indicate that hearing children who learn sign language talk more than their same-age peers. Here is a resource for the study.

http://deafness.about.com/od/babysigning/f/signspeech.htm

The study involved 103 11-month-old hearing babies. The babies were divided between a group learning sign language, and a group that did not learn sign language. By the time the signing babies were two years old, they were talking more than the average two year old. At three years old, the signing babies were talking more than the average three year old. By age eight, the signing babies scored higher on IQ tests than the non signing babies.

As a speech language pathologist, I also promote the use of sign language for children with severe communication deficits. It is also an effective strategy for teaching color identification and sight words to children who struggle with these concepts initially.

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I have seen the same information AND that they typically have a larger spoken vocabulary as well right up into their third year of life. The hypothesis is that the language centers in the brain are engaged earlier and so even spoken language occurs sooner as well. –  balanced mama Nov 5 '12 at 23:29

Just as the others have noted, we too used sign when our kids were small to reduce frustration. Now, that they are older (7&9), we use sign language to give them silent cues (remember thank you!) or ask questions at a distance without drawing attention (hungry? bathroom? ready to go? come here!).

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Those are great uses -- as is talking in a noisy place without screaming! –  HedgeMage Mar 31 '11 at 23:08

I'm not sure, but I can give you one example where signing hurt us: Our kids first and most-used signs were "please" and "thank you." We'd frequently say "can you say thank you?" and they'd sign it and we'd smirk in our triumph of parenting.

....Well, nowadays (at about 2 years old) they can say a lot of words, but we're unable to get them to actually say "thank you" with their words when asked to "say thank you."

I guess the lesson learned is that you should ask your kids "can you sign thank you" so that later you can distinguish between say vs. sign

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Why does it matter whether they verbally say it or not? If you're worried about the impression that others would get, just explain to them that the sign means thank you. Every time I've done this, the other person has been even more excited than they would be with a normal thank you (especially because in ASL the sign looks a lot like blowing a kiss). –  bwarner Aug 22 '11 at 22:20

Like David said, signing may or may not improve verbal communication. And if you're not careful, you can run into the problems efalcao mentioned.

That being said, I think teaching your infant/toddler/child to sign is a wonderful idea. We started with our first child at 6 months (and it wasn't just signing, we also talked and sang to her as much as possible). At that age they have little to no ability to mimick you, but that doesn't mean they aren't learning. I think we often underestimate what our children can learn from their surroundings.

I think one of the most significant benefits of signing is that it helps children learn that their are "words" attached to "things." At first, speech is a game to the children--they do a lot of experimentation and make up a lot of gibberish. Somewhere along the line, though, they learn that there is a meaning attached to the sounds you're making. This is all true for signing as well, and my humble opinion is that presenting sign language as a supplement to speech will speed up this learning process.

Take this for what it's worth--it's not based on research and I only have a sample sample size of 1! :)

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Yes, kids can learn the words and signs long before they themselves can express them. It's an effort to continue signing for months but suddenly the baby will begin signing too, when the motor skills are ready for it, and that's a great moment! –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Mar 31 '11 at 7:55

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