by Wyatt Myers
August 17, 2010
When Stephanie Adams, the toddler lead teacher at the Baylor University child care center, takes visitors into her classroom, they swear her students act, react, and behave more like 10-year-olds than 2-year-olds. And though she can’t prove it, Adams believes that the sign language she has taught them since the age of six months might have something to do with it.
“I think it helps them not only communicate, but also develop faster emotionally,” says Adams. “We taught them signs for feelings, like ‘happy,’ ‘sad,’ and ‘frustrated.’ Before they could talk, instead of throwing a tantrum, the kids could just let me know how they felt with sign language.”
Adams has been working with many of this small group of children for 18 months, starting when they were 6 months old with the signs “eat,” “more” and “all done.” She continued adding three signs at a time as the children grew. “We started mostly with signs about eating. ‘Drink,’ ‘milk’ and ‘water’ were next,” she says. “Then we learned ‘help,’ and we moved on to other interests like ‘dog,’ ‘cat’ and ‘phone.’”
How sign language helps
Adams is a big believer in the power of sign language, not only to help children communicate at a very young age, but also to help them grow and mature earlier than you might expect. And research seems to support her notions. “Benefits of sign language in an infant’s development include providing a foundation on which to learn written English and build speech, reducing frustration and building self-esteem and confidence, opening up receptive and expressive interactive communication prior to speech development, and developing cognitive abilities earlier,” says Tami Hossler, MA Ed., editor of The Endeavor Magazine for the American Society for Deaf Children (ASDC).
Over the years, dozens of studies have shown the benefits of sign language for infants. Joseph Garcia was a pioneer in this field, and among his findings were that 6-month-olds who are exposed regularly to sign language can begin communicating expressively by the time they are 8 or 9 months old. A recent study showed that children exposed to early sign language had I.Q. scores that were 8 to 13 points higher than non-signers at age 8.
One misconception about sign language with infants is that it delays speech development, but, according to Hossler, this notion has been disproved in studies. “There is no evidence that signing removes a child’s motivation to speak or interferes with learning to speak, and sign language learned after speech will not affect how often a child uses their voice,” she says.
This unfounded fear has been almost universally debunked in studies over the years. In fact, in the most recent study published in the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology in 2009, the researchers found that not only did sign language not delay speech, but that children would gradually phase it out on their own, without prompting, as they reached the age of 2 years.
How to use sign language at home
If you’re interested in teaching your kids sign language at home, our experts have a few tips that can help.
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