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Focus on Bilingualism: The Benefits of Sign Language in Early Acquisition

By: Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP and Alejandro Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP
Many parents of children with communication delays and disorders become very concerned when a speech-language pathologist proposes the use of sign language. When probed further about their concerns, many parents have reported that they are afraid their children will learn to sign and not learn to talk, or that they will no longer be motivated to learn to speak if they can communicate with sign language. How do we convince parents that it is okay to teach signs to their children?
There is a growing body of literature that is following the growing use of sign language with infants. Many parents of typically developing children have started to use sign language, or baby signs, with their infants and toddlers. (Pizer, Walters, & Meier, 2007). Many speech-language pathologists have long viewed sign language as a bridge between the time a child know what he/she want to communicate and the time a child can orally produce what he wants to say. Recent studies provide support for the use of signs.
Thompson et al. (2007) found that infants 6 to 10 months of age learned novel signs and used them independently and appropriately. They also found that childrenÕs crying and whining was reduced when children were using signs to communicate. This finding was also noted by Goodwyn, Acredolo, and Brown (2000), who additionally found that signing leads to earlier and clearer parent-child communication, reduced accelerated spoken language development, improved parent-child bonding, and increased intelligence. While parents of children with typical development are using signs to help their children communicate at an earlier age, parents of children with language delays can use them to help bridge the gap as their children mature and develop more oral communication skills.
Another study (Pizer, Walters & Meier, 2007) found that families of children who learned signs to communicate stopped using sings when children began to communicate well orally (around 2 years of age). As children with typical development became able to communicate orally, they did so. It is more efficient to communicate orally so when children are able to do so, it is what they choose. This study should help alleviate the fears of parents who are concerned that their children will lose the motivation to speak if they learn how to communicate with signs.
While parents may be resistant to the use of signs to help their children develop early language skills, the research indicates that children do not continue to rely on signs once they can communicate orally. Sharing data about sign use with the families you work with may ease concerns.
Barnes, S. K. (2010). Sign language with babies: What difference does it make. Dimensions of Early Childhood, 38, 1, 21-30.
Goodwyn, Acredolo, & Brown (2000). Impact of symbolic gesturing on early language development. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 24, 81-103.
Pizer, G., Walters, K. , & Meier, R. P. (2007). Bringing up baby with baby signs: Language ideologies and socialization in hearing families. Sign Language Studies, 7, 4, 387-430.
Thompson, R. H., Cotnoir-Bichelman, N. M., McKerchar, P. M., Tate, T. L., & Dancho, K. A. (2007). Enhancing early communication through infant sign training. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 40, 15-23.
This Month’s Featured Authors:
Ellen Kester, Ph.D., CCC-SLP Bilinguistics, Inc.
Alejandro Brice, Ph.D., CCC-SLP University of South Florida St. Petersburg
Many thanks to Dr. Ellen Kester for providing this article for this months newsletter
Dr. Ellen Kester is a Founder and President of Bilinquistics, Inc. She earned her Ph.D. in Communication Sciences and Disorders from The University of Texas at Austin. She earned her Master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology and her Bachelor’s degree in Spanish at The University of Texas at Austin. She has provided bilingual Spanish/English speech-language services in schools, hospitals, and early intervention settings. Her research focus is on the acquisition of semantic language skills in bilingual children, with emphasis on assessment practices for the bilingual population. She has performed workshops and training seminars, and has presented at conferences both nationally and internationally. Dr. Kester teaches courses in language development, assessment and intervention of language disorders, early childhood intervention, and measurement at The University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached at
[email protected]
Dr. Alejandro E. Brice is an Associate Professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg in Secondary/ESOL Education. His research has focused on issues of transference or interference between two languages in the areas of phonetics, phonology, semantics, and pragmatics related to speech-language pathology. In addition, his clinical expertise relates to the appropriate assessment and treatment of Spanish-English speaking students and clients. Please visit his website at or reach him by email at [email protected]

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