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?
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.
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!
Edit - Book information
Since someone was interested in which book we got from the library, I thought I would post the information here. These are not affiliate links so I don't get any credit, but just in case you are afraid to click links I will include the ISBNs so you can look the books up yourself.
They are all written by Linda P. Acredolo. She also has some good books for adults on child language and sign language for their babies.
My First Baby Signs: ISBN-10: 006009074X
Baby Signs for Animals: ISBN-10: 0060090758
Baby Signs for Mealtime: ISBN-10: 0060090731
Baby Signs for Bedtime: ISBN-10: 0060090766
There may be more but those are the four that we used for all three of our children. They aren't the flashiest books, but like I mentioned - our kids just picked up on the signs from looking at the books by themselves - we didn't teach them - so they really work. Sorry if this sounds like an advertisement for the books - I'm not affiliated/associated in any way - they just worked really well for us and the kids liked them a lot. See if your local library carries them?
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.
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.
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!).
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! :)
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