" Babies who sign learn very early in life that their thoughts and feelings matter and will be listened to. As a result of being effective in the world, they develop positive attitudes towards others - and towards themselves. They discover that..."

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Benefits of signing

Exposing a child to sign language brings more than just the obvious benefit of being able to communicate before he or she can speak. It can also:

  • lower frustration for both you and your child, since the child will be able to communicate wants and needs in a way you can understand; and
  • provide you an insight into your child’s thoughts, allowing for a stronger bond to form from an earlier age.

But the advantages don’t stop there. Exposing your child to signing at an early age can have a positive impact on various aspects of their development:

On an intellectual level, it generally leads to:

Faster vocabulary acquisition and better recall

Children using signs typically have a larger vocabulary earlier than children that only use spoken language, and maintain such a lead. Signing also provides an additional tool to help children remember words and their meanings. Read more

The table below is based on research by Dr Marilyn Daniels, professor of communication arts and sciences at Pennsylvania State University and compares vocabulary acquisition in children using signs and those only using spoken language:

  Average age
  Children using signs Children using only spoken language
First recognisable sign/word 8.5 months 12 months
Ten-sign/word vocabulary 13 months 15 months
Combining signs/words 17 months 21 months

And what’s more, this type of lead is typically maintained.

One of Daniels’ studies looked at two groups of children in their pre-kindergarten year; one group was exposed to signing, the other group not. She found that children who were signed to developed vocabulary faster than the children who were not signed to. Neither group were exposed to signing in their first year of kindergarten, yet a follow-up study showed that the children from the first group had maintained their vocabulary lead (Daniels, 1996).

Daniels explains this by the fact that signing enhances brain development, thereby giving a head start to children who are exposed to signing. In her book Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children's Literacy (Bergin & Garvey 2001), she states, that 'babies eyes develop very early and when information is taken in with the eyes the right brain is being used. All languages are stored in the left brain, so when babies are exposed to sign and speech, both the right and left brain are being used.' She goes on to point out how '… this is a wonderful advantage because you are using both hemispheres of the brain, building more synapses (junction of two nerve cells) in the brain.'

Better recall can be attributed to the fact that each language a person learns is stored in a different ‘memory store’ in the left hemisphere of the brain. Even at a very early age, sign language will have a separate memory store to spoken language, essentially giving a child two ‘databases’ to draw from. This allows a child to, for example, recall the sign that will support the spoken word or provide a clue to the meaning of the spoken word, or find the manual alphabetic letter that will remind them of how to spell a word.

Daniels also pointed out that the physical movement required to sign also seems to trigger a response in the left hemisphere of the brain and help to recall words.

Other studies, such as those by Drs Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn from the University of Davis in California showed that babies who were signed to understood more words and had larger vocabularies than non-signing babies (Moore et al, 2001).

Enhanced literacy

Signing develops skills that will form a solid base for learning to read and write. Read more

Signing the alphabet enables children to spell words with their fingers (also called finger spelling). Finger spelling helps children recognise letter shapes and sounds. Being able to recognise letter shapes and letter sounds, together with understanding the meaning of the words formed by the letters, is the basis for reading.

Furthermore, the hand movements needed for sign language give young children a unique opportunity to practice moving individual fingers, bringing fingers into exact positions and practicing wrist movement. All of this can have a positive impact on writing skills when the child is older, as fine motor skills are important for holding a pencil and forming letters.  (Based on research conducted by Marilyn Daniels, professor of communication arts and sciences at Pennsylvania State University - www.marilyndaniels.com)

More interest in learning

A child’s interest in learning can typically be enhanced by the use of sign language. As children enjoy learning and using sign language, a teacher using sign language in the classroom will automatically get more attention, as the children are obliged to focus on the teacher so as not to miss what is going on.  (Based on research conducted by Marilyn Daniels, professor of communication arts and sciences at Pennsylvania State University - www.marilyndaniels.com)

Higher IQ scores

Drs Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn followed up on their original research into vocabulary acquisition by comparing the IQs of children who were exposed to signing as babies and those who were not. In IQ tests carried out on both groups at the age eight, the first group had an average IQ of 114, compared to only 102 for children who were not exposed to signing (Acredolo and Goodwyn, 2000).

More sophisticated play

The importance of play to children’s development is unquestioned, as it combines many different factors such as physical skills, social skills, decision-making, imagination and creativity etc. Dr Maria Montessori (1988) saw play as integral to development of the pre-school child. Read more

In her research, Dr Marilyn Daniels found that using sign language with hearing children enhances their facility for play by increasing their understanding and use of symbols (Daniels, 1996). And in their research, Drs Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn also showed that babies who were signed to engaged in more sophisticated play than non-signing babies (Moore et al, 2001).

Benefits linked to exposure to a second language

Learning a second language at any age is an enriching experience, but early exposure gives children the widest possible set of advantages and opportunities. Read more

In an article published in Children in Scotland magazine, Antonella Sorace, Professor of Developmental Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, gave an insight into some of the benefits of learning a second language at an early age. She said that bilingual children seem to:

  • be better at selectively paying attention, at inhibiting irrelevant information, and at switching between alternative solutions to a problem;
  • be able to multi-task more easily;
  • have a higher awareness of language and a greater ability to think and talk about it;
  • develop reading skills earlier than monolingual children; and
  • have an enhanced ‘awareness of the other’, i.e. an earlier understanding of the fact that other people may have beliefs, desires and intentions different from their own.

On a psychological and emotional level, it:

Enhances the ability to express feelings at a very early age

Most of the signs for emotions are iconic (e.g. sad, angry, scared, shy, brave), which helps children understand and express them. Read more

Being able to express feelings is critical to a child’s emotional development. Experience with signing children shows that in moments of distress, a child more often chooses the sign rather than the spoken word to express what is going on, even if they can already speak. This may be because signing feels ‘heartfelt’ and expressive, and in sensitive situations, might seem more private as it can be done discreetly and cannot be overheard.  (Based on research conducted by Marilyn Daniels, professor of communication arts and sciences at Pennsylvania State University - www.marilyndaniels.com)

Increases self-esteem

Children generally enjoy learning how to sign. Because it gives them a skill that not everyone has, they have the feeling that they can do something special. Children also enjoy sharing their knowledge and teaching siblings, parents and friends. Being able to teach signs to someone else is a boost to their self esteem.  (Based on research conducted by Marilyn Daniels, professor of communication arts and sciences at Pennsylvania State University - www.marilyndaniels.com)

Makes communication a multisensory experience

Signing in addition to using spoken language makes communication a multisensory experience, as it involves seeing, hearing and feeling. Dr Maria Montessori, founder of the Montessori Method of education, strongly advocated that children learn via their five senses in order to have the most complete understanding of the world around them.

Can be of help to children in bilingual families

Sign language can effectively build a bridge between the various spoken languages used in the family.