SIGN LANGUAGE AND ITS BENEFITS FOR HEARING CHILDREN
This week one of our tutors, Isabel, decided to introduce sign language to kindergarten & 1st-grade classes. Isabel has been interested in learning sign language for a long time and hopes to study it in college. While she knew it would be fun, studies also show that sign language, especially for English Language Learners, can reinforce learning the alphabet, and help them retain simple vocabulary. Isabel’s class is picking up American Sign Language very quickly! While it started as a passion project, it turns out that sign language can have tremendous benefits for hearing children. And, as part of their study, the kids are talking about how children are different, including those with special needs.
American Sign Language has been one of the primary means of communication for the deaf since the early 1800s after Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet helped to develop the language and then went on to establish a university for the deaf. Now, the practice of teaching hearing children sign language is gaining popularity nationwide.
Babies as young as six to seven months old can remember a sign, according to experts (Glairon, 2003). By eight months, children can begin to sign single words and imitate gestures, and by 24 months, children can sign compound words and full sentences (Glairon, 2003). Workshops are now offered in over 75 cities across the United States for parents and their children (Glairon, 2003). Many preschools have also begun to teach sign language to their students.
The use of sign language has proven to be beneficial for children in a wide variety of settings. Hearing parents are now teaching sign language to their preverbal babies, which has proven to benefit children in their later years. Sign language also enables children to communicate effectively with their deaf parents. Sign Language has also proven to be a successful intervention with children with special-needs including autism and Down syndrome.
Research shows that sign language hastens speech development, reduces frustration in young children by giving them a means to express themselves before they know how to talk, increases parent-child bonding, and lets babies communicate vital information, such as if they are hurt, or hungry. A 2000 study funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development, shows that young children who learn sign language speak sooner than other children (Glairon, 2003). Joseph Garcia, an ASL interpreter, educator and independent researcher, developed one of the first programs for teaching sign language to hearing children after researching the use of signs by pre-verbal children in the mid-1980s (Yost, 2003). Garcia found through his research that children are able to communicate sooner using sign language, which involves only manual dexterity. He claimed that mastering spoken communication is a difficult skill requiring the maturity of 200 muscles in the face and throat (Yost, 2003).
Using sign language does not delay the speech process. Instead, children easily make the transition from sign language to spoken words. More than 90 percent of deaf parents have hearing children, according to the Deaf Studies Board, a British research group (Sell, 2001). For a hearing child and deaf parent, learning a basic, first word is just the beginning of what can be a difficult and emotional communication process. “Mother father deaf” is a phrase often used in the deaf community to classify a hearing child of deaf parents (Sell, 2001). These are the parents who never hear the fans yell when their child hits a home run. These are the parents who sit through their child’s piano concert, never hearing a note. And these are the moms and dads who never hear their child’s name called at graduation. These are the families that eventually link the gap between the hearing and deaf worlds and that face unique parenting challenges.
Children of Deaf Adults (CODA) is a nonprofit organization of hearing adult children of deaf parents. It gives the children a place to share stories and experiences. Many claim they often had to help their parents in different situations, such as interpreting for them at schools, courts, stores, banks, service stations and doctors’ offices, even when they were especially young. Because of their additional responsibilities, many children of deaf parents mature faster than other children. As interpreters, they are part of a conversation they would not normally be a part of. However, there are some disadvantages of children interpreting for their parents. The CODA organization states that hearing people often project unnecessary burdens on children (Sell, 2001). Many times a hearing person will not interact with the parent and only the child, forgetting that the child is only an interpreter and not a spokesman.
At Operation Exodus our 1st-grade students had a great time learning a new skill. Here’s Joel spelling his name:
For many decades, speech language professionals have used signs simultaneously with speech in treating children who are slow to develop spoken communication. Using Sign Language has also proven to be a successful intervention with children with special-needs including Down syndrome, and autism. Children with a variety of performance levels can be taught to utilize sign language. Many abnormal behaviors related with autism and other developmental disabilities, such as aggression, tantrumming, self-injury, anxiety, and depression, are often attributed to an inability to communicate to others. Sign Language allows the child to communicate using signs and may motivate the verbal language process. Another possible benefit of teaching a child to sign may be the facilitation of their attentiveness to social gestures of others as well as of themselves. Teaching sign language to children with autism and other developmental disabilities does not interfere with learning to talk, but teaching sign language along with speech has proven to speed up spoken communication. Parents of hearing children are discovering sign language is beneficial for children in a wide variety of situations. It is hoped that the practice of teaching hearing children sign language will continue to gain popularity.
Portions of this article were originally written by Jenny Carrow on the American Sign Language In