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by: Mimi Vance, American Sign Language Specialist

Words by the Handful baby sign language Spring Session begins on March 19. Just before I begin a new session, I get at least one question like this:

Does using sign language with babies delay speech development?

I can point you to over two decades of research that shows it does not. I’ve read the research and if I weren’t convinced that signing with your baby was not going to hurt your child’s development, I wouldn’t be teaching signing and encouraging everyone I know to use it.

I’ve taught signing for 5 years and have seen families and babies delight in the ability to communicate before words are spoken. I have not seen communication or language hampered or delayed through the use of this simple tool. I’ve used signing with my own children with extremely positive results. My experiences with my own children and others I’ve taught is that children who sign are better able to communicate both before and after they learn to speak.

Every child is different, and every child will speak when they are able – through a combination of physical and mental developmental steps. Helping a child travel the road to spoken communication involves lots of talking, repetition, demonstration, silly noise-making, and more repetition. Communication is more than just talking, and signing is a very powerful tool that provides positive inputs during the pre-speech stage of life – however long that lasts.

Another piece of evidence I have witnessed about signing vs speaking is that once children begin to speak, they will choose speech over signing fairly quickly. Speaking is much easier and more efficient than signing. And as humans, we opt for the easy and more efficient. (e.g., once we begin to walk, we don’t usually opt for crawling – walking is a more effective way to get around.)

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I’ve observed that children are so ready to drop signing in favor of spoken language that parents who want their children to keep up their signing often have to redouble their efforts. They have to make signing a priority in their home, and continue signing consistently – and with growing sign language vocabularies and grammar.

What’s the best way to promote speech development in your child? Talk to them until you’re blue in the face. Read aloud to them from books. Sing to and with them. Engage with them in conversations, even when they aren’t yet talking. Respond when they try to get your attention. Reward their efforts. Signing reinforces all of these things that support speech development.

Here is a story from my own experience that does relate to delayed speech development. I helped our local library start using signs during the “Baby Story Time” weekly program I attended with my own children. The moms loved it, and we started to see many of the children start to sign. After some time, one mom approached me and confided that she was worried about her son, who was about two years old. He wasn’t starting to talk, and she was concerned there was a problem. I encouraged her to bring this up with her doctor. In the meantime, I encouraged her to keep signing with him, as he was already starting to sign, and seemed pleased with his ability to communicate. I pointed out to her that her son’s communications seemed active and happy and appropriate for a child his age. Her mother’s instinct told her that the problem wasn’t a brain function deficit, but she couldn’t understand why he wasn’t talking. Her doctor couldn’t find anything wrong, her worry continued, but they kept signing.

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The library program ended, and I didn’t see this mom anymore for a long time. And then one day I ran into her at a child’s birthday party. Her son was about 5 years old by then. She ran up to me and gave me a big hug and thanked me. It had taken another year and a half until finally she found a doctor who would listen to her. Lo and behold, he checked thoroughly and found that the child’s adenoids were greatly enlarged. They removed them, and he started talking very shortly thereafter, and in full sentences. And he didn’t have the developmental delays often associated with delayed speech. She was grateful to me for teaching them and encouraging them to sign, even in the face of delayed speech.

Signing with your baby encourages and promotes speech development. If you are worried your child’s speech may be delayed, signing could be the best thing you do for your child. A quick Google search for causes of delayed speech won’t bring up sign language as a cause, but it will bring it up as a good tool to help if your child has delayed speech development.

If you want to read some of the over two decades of research on how signing enhances speech and language development, look here.

Sign up for the Spring Session of Words by the Handful baby sign language classes here.

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