I knew even before I was pregnant with Emma that I wanted to attempt to teach her sign language. As an Early Childhood Education major in college, I learned that there are various advantages to teaching a child sign language before they learn to speak verbally, one of the most attractive ones being a decrease in tantrums. Babies and toddlers often throw "temper tantrums" out of frustration due to not being able to communicate what they are feeling. Children develop motor skills before they develop communicable verbal skills, so it makes perfect sense that babies would learn to sign before they can speak.
I started working with Emma when she was about 5 months old, being really persistent with a few key signs (more, milk, eat, please, all done, bath) and she started using them at about 8 or 9 months. It may just be a coincidence, but she was a really easy baby, and even now as a toddler (still using some signs, but talking a lot), she doesn't really throw temper tantrums. :)
So, that's my experience with sign language, but I wrote this post because I was contacted by Emily Patterson, Communications Coordinator of Primrose Schools. She shared with me a very informative article on the topic of sign language and early childhood development:
Early Childhood Education – Acquiring Sign Language
One of the keys to surviving in a tilted economic system in which opportunities to achieve a decent standard of living will be limited is versatility – and the ability to communicate articulately in a variety of ways with the widest possible audience. This includes bilingual ability as well as the ability to communicate in non-verbal ways for the benefit of the disabled – primarily the deaf.
At the same time, a growing shortage of qualified interpreters fluent in American Sign Language has led to more career opportunities – and if current trends continue, it's likely that skilled ASL interpreters will have little problem securing lucrative employment in a society where such a commodity is destined to be in short supply.
Signing Before They Can Speak
A great deal of research has clearly demonstrated that the early years – ages 2 to five – are the best time to educate children in different modes of communication and language. This goes beyond the spoken word (though it is an optimal time for children to learn a second language); many young children have an aptitude for signing as well.
This is not as odd as you may think. As you know, many indigenous peoples around the world, including American Indian nations, have used sign language for centuries to facilitate communication with other tribes with whom they do not share a language. Some paleontologists and anthropologists theorize that Neanderthals – who apparently lacked the vocal mechanism to produce many spoken words – depended a great deal upon hand gestures to communicate.
In fact, recent research suggests that sign language is innate. An article published in the Boulder Daily Camera in 2003 presented strong evidence that babies as young as six months old communicate with their hands:
"...by 6 to 7 months, babies can remember a sign. At eight months, children
can begin to imitate gestures and sign single words. By 24 months, children
can sign compound words and full sentences. They say sign language reduces
frustration in young children by giving them a means to express themselves
before they know how to talk." (Glarion, 2003)
The author also cites study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development demonstrating that young children who are taught sign language at an early age actually develop better verbal skills as they get older. The ability to sign has also helped parents in communicating with autistic children; one parent reports that "using sign language allowed her to communicate with her [autistic] son and minimized his frustration...[he now] has an advanced vocabulary and excels in math, spelling and music" (Glarion, 2003).
The Best Time To Start
Not only does early childhood education in signing give pre-verbal youngsters a way to communicate, it can also strengthen the parent-child bond – in addition to giving children a solid foundation for learning a skill that will serve them well in the future. The evidence suggests that the best time to start learning ASL is before a child can even walk – and the implications for facilitating the parent-child relationship are amazing.
Co-written by Emily Patterson and Kathleen Thomas
Emily and Kathleen are Communications Coordinators for the network of Georgia educational child care facilities belonging to the AdvancED® accredited family of Primrose educational child care schools. Primrose Schools are located in 16 states throughout the U.S. and are dedicated to delivering progressive, early childhood, Balanced Learning® curriculum throughout their preschools.