Not too long ago, the use of sign language was reserved for the deaf and hearing-impaired and the people who needed to communicate with them. Today, signing is much more prevalent. A few weeks ago, at our church's vacation Bible school, nearly all the songs the kids learned were accompanied by some signing. Not only is it fun for the kids, but the motors help them learn the songs more quickly. And I can not help but think that if, in the future, some of these kids are in a position to communicate with a hearing-impaired person that uses sign language, they will have a head start.
Another use of sign language that is becoming more prevalent is the practice of teaching signs to babies, beginning when they are just a few months old, well before they are beginning to communicate through spoken language. And why would parents of normally developing children do this? Well, here are some reasons:
1. Simple signs are easier to produce than spoken words.
2. When babies and toddlers have the ability to communicate, their frustration levels go down.
3. Teaching sign language while speaking to your child does not slow down the acquisition of spoken language. In fact, it may actually accelerate language acquisition.
Teaching sign language to babies is turning into a big business. Several companies produce DVDs and books to teach Baby Sign, which tend to be a simplified version of the ASL (American Sign Language) signs. I taught my children some signs when they were babies. We just used a handful of words … eat, thank-you, milk, please, etc. They did pick them up quickly and use them appropriately before they were a year old. I did not stick with it, though. They were all early talkers who spoke in complete sentences between 18 and 24 months, so they did not need the additional communication tool. I do wish I had followed up with it more, though, so that they would have had some competency in sign language as older children. They learn so fast when they are little!
Signing can be a very useful tool for children who are language delayed or who have physical disabilities that affect their speech. Giving a child another means to communicate can greatly reduce the frustration and accompanying tantrums that result from the inability to speak. Simultaneously teaching signaling and stimulating spoken language can actually positively affect the speech of spoken language as well.