Most parents want their child’s verbal language to develop at a rate comparable to their peers. If language is developing at a delayed rate, they often end up in my office around 2 years old. This is when I am faced with presenting the option of pairing sign language with verbal language to the parent. In some cases, parents tell me they do not want to impede their child’s ability to develop verbal language by teaching sign language. It is one of the most widely believed myths in my field. There are many who believe that using oral language only is the best way to teach a child to communicate verbally. I am going to attempt to dispel that theory here.
There are three ways we communicate. We use spoken language, gestures such as pointing, and reading (including writing). Typically developing children learn to gesture before anything else. At around 6 months old, babies begin to point at desired objects and hold their arms out to be held. This is their way of communicating. A baby holds his arms out to his mother and in return the mother picks the baby up. That baby learns that if he wants to be held, he can repeat that gesture and he will get what he needs. Sign language works in the same way. Using the sign for ‘more’ teaches a baby that if they use that sign, more of the desired object will appear.
At this young age, a baby’s oral muscles are not sufficiently developed for coordinating verbal language, yet they show us their desire to communicate through gestures. They should be cooing and babbling but coordinating their mouths to say the word ‘more’ is too complex at that age. A gross motor movement such as touching their hands together at midline, is quite simple and often easily learned for young babies.
There are several studies which prove that using sign language is beneficial to the development of verbal language and not a single study that says signing inhibits the acquisition of verbal language. My favorite study showing this is by Goodwyn et al. published in 2000. It included over 100 infants and followed them for 2 years. There were 3 groups in the study; one trained parents to use verbal and sign language, one with verbal language only, and one with no intervention (whatever came naturally to the parent). When they were tested at around 3 years old, it showed higher scores related to expressive and receptive vocabulary in the group of children who learned symbolic gestures (sign) paired with verbal language.
I always encourage pairing sign with verbal language whether the child is typically developing or not. If a parent chooses to exclude symbolic gestures, we always abide by the parents’ wishes, but not before attempting to educate them on the science behind sign language.
Whether your child’s language is delayed or typically developing, including symbolic gestures or sign language is a proven method for enhancing the development of verbal language.