"Some advocates say using sign language speeds up verbal development and enhances early brain development" ... Lindy Alexander

"Some advocates say using sign language speeds up verbal development and enhances early brain development" ... Lindy Alexander

As parents, we inevitably have times when we can’t decipher what our young child wants or needs. Children are great communicators, but their language development usually means that their verbal ability is months behind what they can actually understand. This can lead to frustration (yours and theirs!) when they can’t let you know what they want, how they feel, or what they are thinking.

In recent years, the idea of teaching sign language to children – even if they can hear – has risen in popularity. Some advocates say using sign language speeds up verbal development and enhances early brain development, while some parents report that hearing children who have learnt to sign experience less frustration (and therefore fewer tantrums). Some studies have shown that signing children have better working memory. Overall, thought, the research is conflicting.

Typical language development

From the time they’re born (and even before they’re born), children are exposed to language. Receptive language develops before expressive language, which means that infants and toddlers can’t say as much as they understand.

Young children begin pointing to objects and people from around 10 months, and advocates of baby sign say this is the perfect time to begin using sign language with your child.

Reported benefits of signing with babies

Signing is said to be easier for babies and infants to learn because it relies on gross motor skills, rather than fine motor skills, such as those required for speech.

Over 20 studies have been conducted on parents using sign language with their children. Most of this research reported that young children who were exposed to sign language had accelerated language development. It’s important to note, however, that some were based on hearing children with signing, hearing-impaired parents; this is a big factor when you consider that most parents who want to sign with their children won’t necessarily sign fluently. Other studies were based on very small samples (some with just one infant).

Two notable studies, however, did find a link between use of sign language and rate of vocabulary development. These studies found that at 24 months, toddlers who used sign language at home were talking more like 28-month-olds; at 36 months, they were almost a full year ahead of their peers.

While a lot more research needs to be done in this area, it’s clear from the studies that either way, signing definitely doesn’t hinder children’s verbal development.

Common misconceptions

Although it has been called a “miracle fix” and “the answer to every exhausted parent’s prayers”, it’s important to know that while many signs seem to use ‘commonsense’ (for example, the sign for ‘drink’ is pretending to hold a cup and drink out of it), learning to sign isn’t necessarily easy. Perhaps surprisingly, sign language is not based on spoken language, and has its own grammar and structure. Of course this isn’t a big deal if you’re only learning a few words, but if you’re hoping to master the language and sign fluently, you may need to take this into consideration!

If you’re thinking about signing with your baby, be aware that many of the educational resources don’t use Australian Sign Language (Auslan) – they instead use American Sign Language (ASL), which is very different. But again, this probably isn’t a problem if you only want to use the signs within your family.

Personal reflections

I don’t have a hearing loss, but am fluent in Auslan. I must admit, though, that signing with my 16-month-old son has been anything but fluent.

I had grand plans of bringing him up in a bilingual household, but consistently using sign language in the early days took too much energy.

Recently I’ve found more time to use signs with my son – I just incorporate it as we read books or go about our day – and I’ve been surprised at how quickly and easily he has picked it up. He now has over 25 signs he can use for all kinds of things: animals, foods, feelings, and concepts like hungry, more and finish.

I’m not using sign language to try and increase his intelligence, or to give him a head start. Rather, signing gives me an insight into my son that I wouldn’t have had until much later. For example, when he signs ‘hungry’ I can be sure what he means, rather than guessing.

Of course, just as a child learning to speak may say ‘hopspital’ instead of hospital, there can be confusion with sign. Many signs look similar, especially with a toddler’s chubby little hands. It can be tricky to know whether my son is just clapping his hands or signing ‘truck’. But this is all part of the fun – and isn’t this what language looks like when it’s emerging? Messy but wonderful!