My first introduction to sign language occurred when I was a boy at church. When I was about 11 years old, a deaf family moved into our neighborhood and started attending our christian congregation at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
That first Sunday I might not have noticed the new family at all, except that our friend Sister Huffman, wasn’t sitting with her family but was instead seated in a chair right in the middle of the aisle, facing the opposite direction of all the pews.
As the meeting started, Sister Huffman quietly translated every word spoken from the pulpit. It’s likely that the new family got more out of the talks and sermons that week than I did because they were actually listening to the translation instead of watching in awe as I watched “real live sign language” happening before my eyes for the very first time. Such was my introduction to sign language.
Now I’m married and have a 15-month-old daughter. Although she hasn’t spoken a single word yet, she already clearly understands many words spoken to and around her. By teaching her a handful of signs over the last few months, she “speaks” often to those around her using the simple signs quite regularly. Simple words and phrases like “please,” “more,” “I’m finished,” “food,” “milk,” and “where is it” are part of her regular pre-speech vocabulary.
I have experienced firsthand some of the benefits of baby sign language. There have been fewer meltdowns (by child and parents alike), increased number of games to play, and a general increase of trust. Each of these is a direct benefit to the ability to communicate before developing speech. Sign language has given her a head start on the road to effective communication and has given her a head start on relationship building as well.
Research from the US National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health confirms and expands my own experience with baby sign language.
For example, JH Beitchman of the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Toronto Canada conducted an experiment in which he administered psycholsocial measures to a group of children to determine long-term consistency in speech profiles. Results of his expereriment showed that “children with receptive and pervasive speech/language problems at age 5 demonstrated greater behavioral disturbance than children without such impairment.” Additionally, “early childhood language profile[s] were still associated with behavioral and social competence ratings, 7 years later. Children without receptive language problems showed superior social adjustment.”
It was concluded that speech/language impairment in early childhood was associated with behavioral disturbance in late childhood.
Further research confirmed that hearing infants whose parents encouraged symbolic gestures outperformed children whose parents encouraged vocal language.
By effectively teaching basic sign language to hearing babies between 6-10 months of age, parents advance a baby’s ability to communicate and thus prevent many of the behavioral disturbances to behavioral and social development. Thus, teaching your baby sign language can enhance his or her social and emotional development and gives him or her a higher chance of avoiding debilitating setbacks early in life.