Signing Before They Can Speak

The following is a guest post co-written by Emily Patterson and Kathleen Thomas.

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 can be taught at home, or some child care programs have begun to teach it in their curriculums.

This really isn’t as odd as you may think. As you may already 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)

A study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development is also cited, 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

Incorporating sign into pre-verbal youngsters early childhood education as a way to communicate 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.

Emily and Kathleen are Communications Coordinators for the Austin child care facility, a member of the AdvancED® accredited family of Primrose Schools (located in 16 states throughout the U.S.) and part of the network of child care preschools delivering progressive, early childhood, Balanced Learning® curriculum

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2 thoughts to “Signing Before They Can Speak”

  1. “hey say sign language reduces frustration in young children by giving them a means to express themselves before they know how to talk.”

    This has been our experience with Kevin. He was getting very frustrated because he wanted something (a drink or some food) and he didn’t know how to ask for it, and thus was frustrated when we didn’t understand his “uh, uh, uh!!!” We had been doing signs for a while but he never tried to do them himself, until he figured out that he didn’t have to be frustrated, he just needed to make a sign and then we would know what to get him. We are now using the same tactic to teach him to speak.

  2. My husband and I are both fluent in ASL (but hearing). Our children could all use simple signs long before they could talk. It was a wonderful way to communicate with them before they were capable of speaking.

    Any advantage we give our kids early on by way of communication skills helps them with language. I have proof! None of them have shut-up since!

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