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. Some research shows that at age 8, children who were exposed to early sign language have IQ scores 8–13 points higher than non-signers.
“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).
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 one 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 2 years of age.
How to use sign language at home
Expert tips for introducing sign language to your baby:
- Only use American Sign Language. There are some infant sign language books on the market that offer signs that are inconsistent with the signs of American Sign Language (ASL). While some of these signs might be easier for baby to do, it’s important to stick with ASL, which is universal and taught to children of all languages. Many of these sources have online video libraries.
- Start young. Research indicates that children can begin learning the signs as early as 6 months, but you can start working even younger if you’d like, says Hossler. “Language begins at birth, and you can start to sign with your baby right away,” she says. “Babies receptively take in language as soon as they can focus.”
- Start with 3 words. Work on three words at a time, introducing new signs once the child is starting to use the first set of signs. Add the new signs into the mix with the learned signs so that their signing vocabulary grows. Remember that babies need a lot of repetition in order to learn.
- Start by signing about what they are doing. Young infants spend a lot of time eating, so it’s a good idea to start with signs about eating so that they can begin to understand what you are referencing. Repetition and recognition will help babies master their vocabulary.
- Be consistent and persistent. Just as you talk to your baby in slow, simple sentences, you should take a similar approach to sign language, says Hossler. Speak and sign slowly and in a drawn-out fashion, and make sure you have your baby’s full attention. And, be persistent. Eventually, you will be amazed as your baby begins to sign back to you her wants and needs.