Sign Language for Babies

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Sign language for babies was a topic I stumbled on accidentally when watching the comedy movie – Meet the Fockers. In the movie, one of the side characters was a little boy named Jack. In the story, Jack is still preverbal and yet to speak his first word, but Jack can use sign language to express what he wants and needs.


When I discovered that the actor who played Jack learned sign language as a baby, it made me curious to find out more. The program his real parents used was called Signing Time so that was what I used with my own children. I didn’t know it at the time but along the way, I have read about the many benefits of teaching babies to sign.

For parents looking for early learning activities for babies, sign language is a good one to begin with.


Why Should We Teach Children Sign language?

Sign Language offers an easy way to learn a second language with many of the benefits of having a verbal second language. When children learn to sign, they can experience the following benefits:

  • More rapid development of language skills compared to children who do not learn to sign
  • Helps to establish critical social skills
  • It acts as a second language which provides bilingual advantages in future
  • Facilitates communication between parent and child and improves cooperation
  • Provides infants with a means of communicating their needs and thus reducing frustration and tantrums
  • Enhances bonding between parent and child
  • Fun physical activity that helps to develop self-esteem in children
  • Provides additional benefits when taught to special needs children
  • Increases IQ points between 8 to 13 points which has long lasting effects


Gesturing Gesturing Helps Children Retain What They Learn

We found that requiring children to gesture while learning the new concept helped them retain the knowledge they had gained during instruction. In contrast, requiring children to speak, but not gesture, while learning the concept had no effect on solidifying learning. Gesturing can thus play a causal role in learning, perhaps by giving learners an alternative, embodied way of representing new ideas. We may be able to improve children’s learning just by encouraging them to move their hands.

Cook, Mitchell, and Goldin-Meadow, Cognition (2008)

In a study from the Journal Cognition, researchers found that gesturing can help children retain what they learn. Although the study was focused on learning a math topic, it supports the findings in research on the benefits of Sign Language.


Research on the Benefits of Sign Language

A comprehensive summary of the academic research on the impact of signing on cognitive, linguistic and social-emotional development

The benefits of using signs with students are seen in individuals as young as preverbal infants, to those in early elementary, all the way to adult students who struggle with reading or those who are learning a new language. Research has also shown benefits for children with special needs including dyslexia, language impairments, Down syndrome, and Autism Spectrum Disorders, as well as for both hearing and deaf children in an inclusive education environment. Signs can be used to enhance education for learners of a wide range of ages and abilities.


Signing with Infants and Toddlers

The benefits of signing with infants and toddlers include improved language development, cognitive development, and social-emotional development.

1. Language Development

  • children who learned to sign as infants have larger vocabularies and were using longer sentences at 2 years old.
  • signs may help children understand and remember concepts represented by words
  • the same areas of the brain (areas for understanding meaning in symbols) are activated by symbolic gestures and signs as well as by words
  • meaningful hand movements make learning a new word easier

2. Cognitive Development

  • children who had learned to sign as infants had better language skills
  • the verbal IQs of signing children were, on average, 12 points higher than non-signing peers

Learning sign language may boost cognition by 50 percent

Gestures and speech used similar neural circuits as they developed in our evolutionary history. University of Chicago psycholinguist David McNeill was the first to suggest this. He thought nonverbal and verbal skills might retain their strong ties even though they’ve diverged into separate behavioral spheres. He was right. Studies confirmed it with a puzzling finding: People who could no longer move their limbs after a brain injury also increasingly lost their ability to communicate verbally. Studies of babies showed the same direct association. We now know that infants do not gain a more sophisticated vocabulary until their fine-motor finger control improves. That’s a remarkable finding. Gestures are “windows into thought processes,” McNeill says.

Could learning physical gestures improve other cognitive skills? One study hints that it could, though more work needs to be done. Kids with normal hearing took an American Sign Language class for nine months, in the first grade, then were administered a series of cognitive tests. Their attentional focus, spatial abilities, memory, and visual discrimination scores improved dramatically—by as much as 50 percent—compared with controls who had no formal instruction.

Brain Rules for Baby – John Medina

3. Social-Emotional Development

  • signs promote positive social interactions and relationships with parents
  • signs can be used by young children to help them regular their behaviour and to communicate their needs
  • signs with preverbal children may promote social skills


Signing with Preschool Children

The benefits of signing with preschool children include improved language and literacy, and learning across subject areas.

1. Language and Literacy

  • use of signs with preschoolers and kindergartners aids language and literacy development
  • signs help children enlarge their vocabularies and improve their spelling and reading skills

2. Learning Across Subject Areas

  • using two modes of communication (verbal and signs) can help students learn and retain information better.

Signing with Children with Developmental Disabilities

Research also shows the benefits of signing with children with developmental disabilities, such as language impairments, Down Syndrome, Autism, and Dyslexia.

1. Children with Specific Language Impairments

  • In a small study, children learned twice as many of the words that were presented in speech and sign as the words presented through speech only, and incorporated those new words into their everyday vocabularies

2. Children with Down Syndrome

  • children with moderate disabilities may benefit from the use of signs in the same way that typically developing children do, but those with severe disabilities may not share the same benefits.
  • those with more severe disabilities, including lack of oral motor skills necessary to speak, the use of signs may provide a functional means to communicate.

3. Children on the Autism Spectrum

  • using signs and speech together helped children with ASD learn both receptive and expressive vocabulary

4. Signing with Children with Dyslexia

  • using signs, particularly fingerspelling, is an effective way to help students gain skills involved in reading, such as, isolating speech sounds, sounding out words, and spelling.
  • the hypothesis is that signs and fingerspelling can help to trigger memories, serving as a bridge between the visual word and the oral word.


How to Teach Your Baby Sign Language

The program we used is called Signing Time. It teaches basic everyday signs through music. Each word is introduced with the written word, a picture of the word, and an explanation and demonstration of how to sign the word. This is followed by video clips of various children signing the word. It allows parents can see the different variations in how children might sign the same word. Since small children have difficulties repeating the exact sign, it helps to see what different variations might appear. Lastly, the sign is then incorporated into a song, creating a memorable experience for children learning to sign.

The following video provides some insight into what the program is like:

More about Signing Time.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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