ASL is an abbreviation for “American Sign Language,” which is a rich language used by many Deaf people to communicate. It has its own syntax, grammar, and culture. ASL is also the 3rd most used language in the United States! As speech therapists, we often use single words or gestures derived from ASL in order to support early language learning and communication. Here at Emerge, we recently had a lecture from Dr. Lisalee Egbert, who is Deaf woman, mother of a Deaf child, professor, researcher, and presenter with a Masters in Deaf Education and a Ph.D in Reading. Dr. Egbert taught our staff so much about how to be mindful and inclusive with our use of ASL and gestures when working with both Deaf and hearing children. Today, I wanted to share some of what Dr. Egbert taught us and some of my own advice and research as a speech-language pathologist on the use of ASL and gestures.

Using words and gestures derived from ASL with hearing infants and toddlers is a new trend that many parents are using to help boost communication in their child’s early years. Many people in the Deaf community are excited about the normalization of signed communication and the research that is coming out supporting the overall benefits of its use. Something that is so important to recognize, however, is that these signs and gestures, while derived from ASL, are nowhere near as complex and dynamic as exposure to ASL would be. While many hearing children gradually decrease their use of signs and gestures as they learn spoken language, it should be encouraged for a child to learn as much ASL as possible, especially if this is proven to be their preferred method of communication. Another important thing to keep in mind when doing your research is that many companies who advertise classes and content on the use of “baby sign” often have no connection to the Deaf community and do not offer continued education and enrichment on the use of ASL. It is so important to continue our support of the Deaf community! Some amazing resources that Dr. Egbert shared with us include ASL University, ASL at Home, and Sign On Connect. These resources provide a combination of lessons and resources both to help others learn ASL and to connect children who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing with resources and each other.

Benefits of using words and gestures derived from ASL:

It is important to recognize that, while research has not indicated a significant boost in overall language skills past the age of 2 for hearing and typically developing children who are exposed to words and gestures derived from ASL, there is research indicating improved communication skills for children who are exposed to this communication method early and have diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Disorder, Childhood Apraxia of Speech, or other developmental delays. Regardless of whether your child has developmental delays, research has indicated several different benefits for using words and gestures derived from ASL. These benefits include: 

  1. Decreased frustration in young children — Children who learn words and gestures derived from ASL are able to communicate in ways other than crying and are often able to be more specific in their communication, leading to decreased frustration levels. 
  2. Improved parent-child bonding — Being able to communicate early on with your child helps to improve your ability to read each other and form a bond. Parents who use works and gestures derived from ASL are often more attentive to their child’s gestural cues. 
  3. Improved attention to social gestures — Teaching your child to tune-in to hand gestures early in life may assist with the development of use and understanding of nonverbal communication. 

Tips for teaching your child words and gestures derived from ASL: 

  1. Begin modeling signed words once your child starts to demonstrate sustained and joint attention. This usually occurs around 8 months of age. 
  2. Select only a couple of signs to start. It can also be helpful to teach signs for highly preferred items/people/actions, such as “mom,” “go,” “water,” or “ball.” 
  3. Repeat signs consistently across a variety of situations. It is often best to model these signs during interactive and engaging routines and activities, such as bath time or when changing their diaper. If you are able to learn more about ASL and model these signs within a complete, grammatically and syntactically correct sentence, then that provides an even richer model for your children! 
  4. Pair your signs with big affect and immediate reinforcement. 
  5. Sometimes children may create their own gestures that vary from those in ASL. This is ok! Signs can be altered by those who use fluent ASL in order to account for physical differences and by Deaf children who are still learning the language. As long as you have an understanding of what different gestures mean you can use these to communicate with your child.

Common recommended early signed words:

1.More

2. All done

3. Mine

4. Want

5. Eat

6. Drink

7. Mom

8. Dad

9. Go

10. Ball

11. Please

12. Thank you

Resources: 

Daniels, M. (1994). “The effect of sign language on hearing children’s language development”. Communication Education. 43 (4): 291–298. doi:10.1080/03634529409378987

Fitzpatrick, E. M; Thibert, J; Grandpierre, V; Johnston, J. C (2014). “How handy are baby signs? A systematic review of the impact of gestural communication on typically developing, hearing infants under the age of 36 months”. First Language. 34 (6): 486–509. doi:10.1177/0142723714562864

Goodwyn, S; Acredolo, L; Brown, C. A. (2000). “Impact of symbolic gesturing on early language development”. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. 24 (2): 81–103. doi:10.1023/A:1006653828895. S2CID 11823057

Iverson, J. M.; Goldin-Meadow, S. (2005). “Gesture paves the way for language development”. Gesture and Language Development. 16 (5): 367–371. doi:10.1111/j.0956-7976.2005.01542.x

Kirk, K. E.; Howlett, N.; Pine, K. J.; Fletcher, B. C. (2013). “To sign or not to sign? The impact of encouraging infants to gesture on infant language and maternal mind-mindedness”. Child Development. 84 (2): 574–590. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01874.x

Mueller Sepulveda, V.; Sepulveda, A. (2013). “Parental perception of a baby sign workshop on stress and parent- child interaction”. Early Child Development and Care. 184 (3): 450–468. doi:10.1080/03004430.2013.797899Nelson, L. H.; White, K. R.;

Grewe, J. (2012). “Evidence for website claims about the benefits of teaching sign language to infants and toddlers with normal hearing”. Infant and Child Development. 21 (5): 474–502. doi:10.1002/icd.1748

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