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It has become well documented that raising a child in a bilingual environment has numerous developmental benefits. These seem to largely center on increased vocabulary and situational awareness.

Neither my wife nor I are deaf, however I have learned a fair amount of sign language from time spent working with deaf coworkers. It seems like it would be a great way to provide an alternate method of communicating in environments where verbal communication is not possible (extremely loud environments and/or environments where quiet is required). As such, we are considering raising our future child to be bilingual in English and American Sign Language.

If we went that route, would the same developmental benefits apply as a child in a bilingual household who learns two verbal languages?

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I am also interested in an answer to this. I taught (a small amount of) sign language to each of my children to help them communicate before they were really "speaking", and it's useful for a lot of reasons, but developmental benefits are an aspect I hadn't looked into. – Erica Mar 22 '13 at 18:27

Sources- Talking Hands by M. Fox & an ASL class I took.

I see you are sold on the idea of raising a bilingual kid-- me too, baby just arrived last month, and we're doing Russian, English with ASL. Since I live up the road from Gallaudet, I thought might as well learn real ASL and not baby ASL. Baby ASL is anywhere from 20-50 signs that are used just when baby is in that time gap between being able to learn & use signs but can't enunciate a spoken language.

Your question really pivots on if ASL is a language. Amazingly, before around 1950, academics didn't consider sign languages to be real languages-- hard to say what they thought, but probably they imagined it fell in the range of gesture systems like baseball signs, or what a street mime does, or something like that. Another hurdle ASL had to over come was if it was just a way of "writing" English with your hands.

Nowadays there is no question that ASL is a language, and distinct from English. The grammar is quite alien as compared to English or any other European language you may have studied in high school. It's topic-comment, not subject-object-verb, adjective strings follow then noun (but single adjectives can go before or after the noun). In a lot of jurisdictions it counts as a language for foreign language.

I think the boundary between parents using baby ASL and those raising bilingual sign/English children is:

  • sheer quantity of vocabulary, baby ASL tops out at 50 or so words, conversational ASL requires 500-1000+ words just to squeak by
  • usage of ASL word order & grammatical markers (esp the grammatical facial expressions).
  • if you can code switch (i.e. switch to ASL without talking and still be understood)

Anyhow, as experiments go, the research says it is hard to do it badly enough to cause harm and the main risk is that the child just doesn't learn the minority language.

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Can you carry on a full adult conversation in sign? If so, then yes, you probably could raise a full sign-speech bilingual child (bimodal bilingual). And yes, it has similar benefits to raising a child who is bilingual in two spoken languages. The research I've seen on bimodal bilingual kids has all focused on hearing children with deaf parents, but there's no reason a hearing parent who is a fluent signer can't raise a bimodal bilingual child as well.

Currently, there's a movement with hearing parents teaching signs to hearing babies ('baby sign'). Most of these parents are not fluent signers and teach only a limited vocabulary of signs, but even so, it seems to have a benefit. These kids show a slight boost to vocabulary, especially in the earliest stages of language development.

Sign languages seem to have a special benefit as well. Babies learning sign (whether from fluent signers or just baby sign) typically sign their first words a little earlier than most babies say their first words. The reason is because they have enough fine motor coordination to make recognizable signs before they have enough oral motor coordination to speak recognizable words. This earlier communication seems to serve an added benefit of reducing the severity of the 'terrible twos', since one impetus for tantrums is trying to communicate and not being understood.

In addition, some studies suggest that the bilingual bonus is greater the more distinct the two languages are - for example, if they belong to separate language families. Obviously, it's hard to get more different than using separate sensory modalities. Fluent signers also tend to have better spatial skills, because ASL uses spatial grammar. (Similarly, people who speak tonal languages are more likely to have perfect pitch.) Of course, this depends on your own mastery of ASL grammar.

As for how to teach it, just sign to your wife in their presence. That's how most kids learn any language.

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Do you have some sources to link for the research? Very interesting. – Ida Feb 9 at 19:03

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