There is considerable growing interest in the use of sign language to encourage early communication and language development in babies and young children.
Who can benefit? In addition to the clear needs of children who are deaf or partially hearing, sign language is also believed to help:
- pre-verbal hearing infants
- children with autism
- children who are dyslexic
- children with learning disability
- children with specific speech and language difficulties
Anyone who has used simple signs with songs and nursery rhymes will appreciate that the kinaesthetic elements involved (the sense of movement), coupled with the visual nature of the signs, can enhance enjoyment, aid memory and stimulate channels of communication that spoken language alone does not fulfill.
Signing can help children to take pleasure in and to internalise language. This is particularly helpful for children who may not easily access language through the channels that many of us take for granted, i.e. through hearing and the ability to process language in the ‘usual’ way. The use of a living sign language, such as British Sign Language (BSL) as used by the Deaf community in this country gives the greater advantage of laying foundations for language that can be built on and developed in later years.
More importantly, children do seem to love it and benefit not only their own development in terms of language and communication skills directly, but they learn to appreciate and accommodate the communication needs of others, something that can be taken with them through life. With whole group or class involvement, it’s a way of ensuring a rich and inclusive communication environment.
Ironically, sign language use with deaf children has not always been an accepted part of their education. This has been a relatively recent development in the last 20 years, and BSL was only officially recognised by the government in 2003.
However, deaf people themselves have always highly valued their language and have always signed. BSL was in use by deaf children in schools despite policies against it that were based on beliefs that sign language use would stop speech development – beliefs that have later proved unfounded.
From profoundly Deaf co-writer of Let’s Sign Early Years, Sandra Teasdale (translated from BSL)……..
“…..BSL is my first language, even though my parents and family didn’t sign and I had very little access to it when I was small. It is the language that feels natural and comfortable to me and the only way I can express myself properly. Like my Deaf friends and colleagues, English is not easy for me.
……The important thing is that we all signed – and those who spoke still spoke – signing never stopped them.”
Fortunately attitudes and teaching methods have undergone great change. The Baby Signing movement has helped this too – Adele Marshall Baby Signing teacher…..
“In America extensive research has been carried out on the benefits of using some simple signs (derived from genuine sign language, such as BSL) with hearing babies, in order to communicate with them before they are able to express themselves verbally. Recent research suggests that babies are learning about the foundations of language and making important connections long before it was previously believed….”
There is now a healthy interest in and attitude to sign language use with resultant growth in materials and resources to support this.
Children soak up language like sponges and have innate ability for communication and language acquisition that can leave adults standing – the early years in particular see development so rapid that it’s breathtaking.
So why not start now and add some signs to your everyday communications with young children? It’s always going to be an extra string to their bow – and what’s more it is wonderful fun!