Does Teaching Sign Language Delay Speech?

by Donne Davis on February 28, 2009

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We’re having a family debate. Does teaching sign language to babies delay their speech? My 86-year old aunt, who served on the San Francisco Speech and Hearing Center’s Board of Directors, believes signing delays speech. My daughter, who introduced American Sign Language to each of her daughters when they were about seven months old, disagrees. Research indicates that signing helps ease a child’s frustration when she can’t speak and promotes verbal language.

My six-year old granddaughter, Juliet learned to sign but abandoned it at 18 months when she began speaking in sentences. She loves to talk and listens to adults and picks up vocabulary like a sponge.

Her little sister, Amelia, just turned two and is completely hooked on signing. Until recently, she rarely uttered a word. She has developed a large signing vocabulary and I think it’s pretty cute the way she conveys her needs. Whenever I’m not sure what she’s signing, I ask Juliet or my daughter to interpret.

But the debate that began last Thanksgiving started gnawing at my fears. As a former speech therapist, I began to worry that my aunt was right. So I asked a few of my speech therapist friends what they thought. One diplomatically said it wasn’t his area of expertise but suggested we start emphasizing more spoken language. My daughter has always spoken the word as she signed to give the benefit of both modalities. The other speech therapist offered to evaluate my granddaughter’s language development.

We have all begun to encourage Amelia to use more words and now she is speaking a lot more words. Two factors seemed to be at work here. We understood so much of what Amelia signed and thought it was so cute; we just let her keep using signs without emphasizing speaking. We also got caught up in a classic case of comparing siblings, which isn’t productive. There is such a huge variation among children in their rate of vocabulary and language development.

It really comes down to respecting the individual child’s development and trusting that with time she will develop at her own rate and in her own style.

Have any of you used sign language with your grandchildren? What were the results?

{ 4 comments }

Jaelline Jaffe PhD December 20, 2009 at 12:50 am

I learned ASL about 35 years ago, and used it as an adjunct to teach learning handicapped children to read. Then I used it to help hearing children learn to spell as well as to sing signed songs (parents adored “Silent Night” in the holiday shows). So when my daughter was born 32 years ago, I taught her many signs that helped her communicate her needs. I also spoke with her concurrently and constantly. She became very verbal, could read at 6th grade level when she entered 1st grade, and is a very capable adult. Naturally, she also taught signs to her twins, who used them while they were learning to speak, and no longer use any signs – both are extremely verbal, with huge vocabularies.

Sally – Research shows that children who learn two languages can readily become fully bilingual, especially when each parent or caregiver speaks one language exclusively to the child.

Susana Young March 19, 2009 at 8:41 am

My first grandson took to signing early, using about 15 “words” by 16 months, and started speaking by 18 months. He is incredibly verbal. His younger sibling did not take to signing (only a handful of “words”) and at nearly two, says very little. I think this difference is a function of at least two factors: 1) The parents’ full devotion to teaching and reinforcing signing and 2) The personality and developmental differences in the two children.

donne March 1, 2009 at 11:27 am

Sally, I’m looking forward to reading your book. Thanks also for the excellent website on signing with babies – great resources.

Sally Wendkos Olds March 1, 2009 at 6:35 am

I was interested in this debate because I have a story in my new book SUPER GRANNY: GREAT STUFF TO DO WITH YOUR GRANDKIDS about signing. I found the website http://www.signingbaby.com very helpful. You might get further information there on whether signing delays speech.

I know I have heard that children who learn two languages from an early age speak neither one of them well, but three of my grandchildren, who live in Germany, are completely bilingual and fluent in both languages. So much for “they say.”

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