We speech therapists have been using sign language with infants and toddlers for years. We are especially likely to do this if a child’s speech lags behind his desire to communicate. When this happens, children are prone to frustration because they have much more to express than they are able to say. Sign language gives them a way to communicate even if they don’t yet have verbal words, and it helps the language part of their brain keep developing while we work to get the speech part to catch up. Because sign language carries these advantages, we often recommend the use of sign language with children who are late talkers, those who are having significant difficulty with speech–such as those with apraxia of speech–or those who have a diagnosis such as Down Syndrome, where speech is often later developing. Most recently, parents of all kinds of young children are learning the power of using sign language with their toddlers, whether or not their child’s speech is delayed.
Many parents, though, have concerns about sign language. They worry that if their child is taught sign language, she will then become reliant on sign language to communicate and won’t develop verbal speech. This is, in fact, the number one reservation that I hear parents voice about using signs with their toddler. The good news is this: In my 10 years of working as a pediatric speech therapist, I have never seen this happen. What’s more, a small NIH funded study found that using sign language with toddlers led to more advanced language in toddlers and preschoolers. Use of sign language as a toddler was also found to be related to a higher IQ at the end of second grade (despite the fact, of course, that the parents had long since stopped signing with their children). Additional, smaller studies have also shown that using sign language along with verbal speech helps young children learn more words, more quickly, than using verbal speech alone.
Why does this happen? Probably for a few different reasons. First, toddlers are driven to imitate, and it is often easiest to tap into their desire to imitate when we pair our actions with our words. Actions last longer than words do. Think about how quickly a spoken word comes and goes. Believe it or not, it lasts for less than a second. An action, though, can last longer. You can slow it down, giving your toddler a chance to really see what’s going on. What’s more, the visual part of our brain is thought to develop more quickly than the auditory part of our brain, so your toddler is likely to respond more strongly and more consistently to what he sees as compared to what he hears. All in all, pairing actions and sounds together gives your toddler more clues about what he’s supposed to do.
The other advantage to using sign language is that, if your child will let you, you can help him do the signs by gently taking his hands and guiding him through the motions. Obviously, you can’t take his mouth and get it to produce words; signing gives you an alternate way to physically help your child learn to communicate. When he then starts to use that sign on his own, he’s learned a very powerful message: he has control over his world and he can get what he wants through communication. Once kids get the idea that communication pays off for them, they start to communicate more and more with those around them. At first, they may continue to use sign language, but eventually they will start to use the words along with the signs. Then, as verbal speech becomes more efficient (and it will– moving your mouth takes much less energy than moving your arms), they will gradually drop out the signs and move over into the world of verbal speech completely.
So what sign language system is best for working with young children? My answer is simple: None. None is best. If you are using sign language as a bridge to verbal communication, it simply doesn’t matter what sign system you choose to use. You could even make up your own signs! In fact, that’s what those parents in the NIH study did– they were taught to communicate with their child through specific gestures that had meaning to them and their child. The important part of using signs with your child is not what specific sign system you use, but rather the consistency with which the adults in your child’s environment use those signs.
If you do want to use formal signs, there are lots of books, videos, and online sign language dictionaries to help get you started. Just don’t get too hung up on the formality of how you do the sign. This is one place in life where perfection is most definitely not required.