Article in WFD News, Magazine of the World Federation of the Deaf
May 2000, Vol. 13 No. 1

Sign, Baby, Sign!

by Kristin Snoddon
Marilyn Daniels teaching
five month-old Paul
DeMarco of Woodstock,

New research demonstrates that teaching sign language to hearing babies improves their language, vocabulary, and reading skills as they develop. Dr Marilyn Daniels, a professor of speech communication at Pennsylvania State University and author of the book Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children's Literacy, is at the forefront of this research.

Dr Daniels is one of the few researchers working in this field who promotes having babies learn a national sign language instead of invented gestures or "home signs." She prefers to teach hearing babies American Sign Language (ASL) because it is a recognized language: "In the United States, ASL is accepted and fulfils high school foreign language requirements in many states and in most colleges and universities. Why then would you not want to teach a hearing baby or child the words that they could use later to help them in their academic pursuits? If you teach ASL signs you are giving kids a head start on a bilingual education."

Dr Daniels also notes that hearing children who are fluent in ASL will be able to communicate with Deaf children and adults. But, most importantly, the fact that ASL is a real language is what makes it of such benefit to children's development: "Because ASL is a legitimate language it is stored in a separate memory store in the baby or child's brain. This happens even in the very first stages of learning the language." When hearing babies learn sign language, their brains develop further than those of babies who learn no second language. Dr Daniels explains: "Studies show that even when human beings are in the initial stages of acquiring a second language, their vocabulary is not stored in a distinct memory store," that is, in the same area of the brain as the person's first language. "This means that babies or children who have been presented with ASL or its vocabulary have an additional place for search and recall in their brains."

Learning ASL also furthers brain development in hearing babies, says Dr Daniels, because "ASL uses the eyes to a far greater degree than any spoken language. The eyes develop sooner in young children and when you take in information with your eyes you are using the right brain." All languages are actually stored in the left brain, but when babies learn sign language both the right brain and the left are used. "This is a wonderful advantage because you are using both hemispheres of the brain, building more synapses in the brain," says Dr Daniels.

Sign language in general seems tailor-made for young children. "The motor areas of the body mature sooner than the mouth and other language articulators," says Dr Daniels. This means that it is easier for children to learn and remember signs than it is for them to acquire fluency in either spoken or written language. "Children like to use sign," she adds. "They pay more attention because of the movement; they become more involved. They are involved in the process of learning and interested in it."

For parents and teachers concerned with the education of hearing children, Dr Daniels' research is most significant because it shows that using sign language from infancy through sixth grade results in improved literacy. The children she has worked with demonstrate better recognition of letters and sounds, better spelling, and larger English-language vocabularies than children who were not taught sign language.

For Deaf people and the parents and teachers of Deaf children, the interest in Dr Daniel's research lies not only in the support it gives to sign language but also in its implications regarding the best way to educate Deaf children. Many doctors, audiologists, and teachers of the Deaf maintain that a strictly auditory-oral route is the best method for raising Deaf children. Most cochlear implant specialists maintain that the goal of implanting babies and children--followed by years of intensive auditory-oral therapy--is to help with language acquisition.

"The idea that Deaf children will not learn how to speak if they are taught sign language before they learn English or the language of their country is a very old, out-of-date position," counters Dr Daniels. "I would totally disagree with this view."

In fact, she has found that hearing children who sign produce better speech and have better communication skills than those who do not sign. "My research does show that oral comprehension would be improved if the indigenous sign language of the country is taught first," she says. "Deaf babies who are taught to articulate still often have no language to use for thinking or for intrapersonal communication.

"All human beings need a language for communication, but they also need a language for thinking, for processing information. Speech and language are two very different things. Deaf babies need sign language; it is their natural language, and it should be established before they are taught English or Swedish."

Kristin Snoddon is an intern in the General Secretariat of the World Federation of the Deaf, in Stockholm, Sweden.

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