Emily Howlett: Fact. Signing really does help babies with their language development

Posted on June 13, 2014



I have a few recent conversations I’d like to share with you. The first, as follows, was between myself and a hearing man I know only vaguely;

Hearing Dude: “What’s your son doing?”
Me: “Oh, he’s suddenly started signing loads of things; he’s just picking them up without us noticing, really.”
Hearing Dude: “So, does he speak?”
Me: “Well… A bit?”
Hearing Dude: “Signing is delaying his speech then?”
Me: “Um.”

The second was with a deaf friend of mine, over text messaging,

Me: “We are at the zoo! He’s singing ‘cow’ at the meerkats!
Buddy Pal: “Singing?”
Me: “DAMN YOU AUTOCORRECT.”
Buddy Pal: “It’s super cute either way. Teach him to ask daddy for a lemur.”
Me: “I don’t know the sign for lemur.”
Buddy Pal: “Your boy does. I taught him last week.”
Me: “Um.”

Another went like this;

Random Excitable Mother (Hearing): “He’s signing!! Look at him signing! That’s so clever; he’s doing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star! What is that sign he’s doing now?”
Me: “He’s picking his nose. Um?”

Shall we go for a different one? Oh, wait, it’s not so different after all;

Me: “He never says ‘Mum’ to me; he uses the sign, though he says ‘Daddy’ and ‘Grandma’.”
Person I Quite Liked Up Until This Moment: “You’re saying he can’t say ‘Mummy’?”
Me: “I’m not saying he can’t say ‘Mummy’, I’m saying he knows not to say ‘Mummy’ because Mummy won’t hear him saying it. I say.”
Person I Am Rapidly Beginning To Actively Dislike: “I’ve been listening to him and I don’t think he can speak well at all. He just yells a lot and waves his arms about.”
Me: “Um.”

And finally, shortly after that last conversation, I had a meeting with a deaf male friend I don’t see very often;

He: “How’s your little man’s signing?”
Me: “Brilliant! He can do but one of my friends said it has delayed his speech. Sadness.”
He: “What ?! And when they said that, which kill method did you use?”

Wildly different views there. And, to be honest, I have found myself changing the way I present the fact that my little boy will sign to you. If you are hearing, I tend to play it down a bit; “Oh, yes he signs sometime, but don’t worry, he’s hearing!” Which makes me more than a little disappointed in myself.

However, if you are deaf, like my male friend, you will get pretty much a floor show as he runs through his repertoire. You see, it’s not just me who likes the fact that he signs; he seems to like it too… He can ask for things he wants, he can have wonderfully visual tantrums and he can express his feelings towards strawberries (loving adoration) and sweetcorn (wretched poison). We can waste whole hours simply signing ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ back and forth until one of us gives in, or dies of exhaustion, and nobody else in the room will ever know we were arguing.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I am acutely (far too acutely) aware that I am the only deaf person in my immediate family. My son is not like me, or at least not yet, and I don’t want my deafness to impact on him negatively. And, genuinely, I don’t think that it does. I think it opens him up to a whole other world, and different communication skills.

But I don’t want him to learn signing at the expense of speaking.

So, I did the usual thing. I researched.

It started out as just a brief encounter with a few websites discussing pros and cons of baby sign language classes, but, as you know, I do enjoy my wearing my researcher hat. I have delved into official documentation, scientific research papers and, for my sins, Mumsnet.

Guess what? It’s not an urban myth. It’s not a lie spread around by deaf people to make their species seem more useful to society. Signing really does help babies with their speech and language development.

As one paper summed it up:

“For me, there are three different levels of support for BS: first, there is indicative, if not evidentially strong, evidence from BS research for benefits; second, there is related evidence from deaf sign and hearing gesture/language research; third, there is compelling anecdotal support from families who have embraced the approach.” (IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER; Here the writer is using BS as shorthand for ‘Baby Sign’ not, y’ know, the other thing…)

It is now widely accepted that simultaneously signing and talking with babies floods them with language in a way that can only be beneficial. Signing is generally held up as an easier option for young minds to grasp, which is true but oversimplified; speech requires the palate and tongue to be developed, which can only come with time, whereas sign language requires only basic motor control of the arms and hands, which develops earlier.

It is because of these different rates of development that, often, a toddler will start to sign before they speak. It’s just physically possible to do this earlier than it is to wrap your tongue around words other than “Waaaaarrrrrghhhhheeeeeeeeaaaaaarghhh”. Picking up sign doesn’t mean that a hearing child will never learn to speak, but it does give them an earlier access to language which might well improve their speech when it arrives.

For me, the issue is no longer about my boy not speaking as much as other people would like him to. The issue is their expectations of children; “But The Book says they must have a vocabulary of fifteen words by thirteen months old! And he only has ten, four of which are variations on ‘poo’!”

Well, no child ever read The Book. If I had my way, no parent ever would either. Just let them do their own thing; I think they’ll surprise us all. Particularly if their first word is actually a sentence; “Daddy, I want a lemur.”

Which reminds me; I still don’t know the sign. I’ll go and ask my son.

For further detail, you might like to read;
http://www.virginia.edu/psychology/childdevelopmentlabs/media/baby-sign-msnbc.pdf
http://www.babysignlanguage.com/basics/research/
http://www.thepsychologist.org.uk/archive/archive_home.cfm/volumeID_21-editionID_159-ArticleID_1330

Emily Howlett is a Contributing Editor to this site. She is a profoundly Deaf actress, writer, horsewoman and new mum. Emily used to be found all over the place, but motherhood has turned her into somewhat of a self-confessed homebody. She now has not one, but four grey eyebrow hairs. C’est la vie. She tweets as @ehowlett

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