Why should I teach my child sign language? Will this hinder their language development?
These are commons questions for parents whose child has a language or speech delay. When a child is not using words, has speech sound errors, or has a limited vocabulary, their primary way of communicating is often movement or gestures- pulling your hand, grabbing objects, climbing, hand pointing, or throwing themselves to the floor. These behaviors may frustrate the child if the message is misunderstood and can become dangerous if frustration escalates. American Sign Language (ASL) is a great tool for children with difficulties in speech and language who have challenges using verbal communication to effectively communicate their messages. Teaching a core vocabulary of functional words in sign language can not only help a child to start communicating functionally, but also may facilitate the child’s own verbal communication skills. Core vocabulary refers to “a small number of words that make up 70-90% of what we say on a daily basis.” For example, theses words may include: eat, want, all-done, open, more, drink, sick, and hurt. Core vocabulary words help children to communicate their needs in an effective way, everyday.
But what if my child is relying solely on these hand signs? Will they stop using words?
Research has shown that exposure to sign language increases a child’s understanding of overall language and builds their vocabulary for communication. Once a child learns these hand-signs, frustrations are minimized and communicating becomes an increasingly positive experience for the child because children are more motivated to learn and use language when they feel in control. Sign language can be paired with words once a child begins to use verbal language. Pairing ASL with verbal words reinforces language for the child and helps listeners to better understand a child’s overall message, even if the words are unclear while they are being practiced. For instance, a child may pair a hand-sign for “more” with a verbal approximation of the word (“mo”). The ASL sign helps the parent to understand the child is requesting “more”, not “moo”, “mom” or “no”.
How long will my child need to use sign language before we expect words to emerge?
There is no clear-cut answer. Some children may only need a few weeks, others may need longer. This can depend on the child’s motivation to communicate. If a child is used to getting what they want by throwing themselves to the floor or whining, they won’t be as motivated to use these hand-signs or word approximations. However, if the family frequently practices communicate using hand-gestures or word approximations, even if ASL requires hand-over-hand assistance, there is a higher likelihood that the child will begin learning communication skills sooner. Other developmental factors can impact the time-frame for acquiring words, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or congenital disorders that may impact a child’s cognitive skills. If you are concerned about the progress your child is making regarding ASL or word acquisition, it is a great idea to ask your child’s speech-language pathologist about improving your child’s overall communication.
Nicole Quick, M.A. CCC-SLP