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Hearing VS Deaf Babies and Toddlers:  Is there a difference when it comes to language development?

Denise Colcord
April 30, 2017

Hearing VS Deaf Babies and Toddlers

When discussing the use of American Sign Language (ASL) with babies and toddlers, there are two conflicting schools of thought. One school of thought encourages the use of ASL as an additional means of communication for hearing and deaf babies and toddlers, while the opposing side discourages the use of ASL for deaf babies and toddlers. If sign language can provide beneficial language skills, promote language development, and provide the opportunity for children to be bilingual than why are all parents, of all children, not being encouraged to utilize it?
Teaching your hearing babies and toddlers sign language only gained its popularity in the 2000s, and is now recognized as a parenting technique. The idea of using sign language with babies and toddlers was discovered much earlier than this. In the 1800s William Dwight Whitney made the initial observation that "children of deaf parents are routinely communicating through sign language at six months to a year before children in hearing families" (History of Baby Sign Language). Whitney's research also found that learning sign language did not hinder these children; in fact children in deaf families were meeting developmental milestones for their language development as expected. At this point the discovery didn't go any further. It wasn't until the 1980s where Dr. Joseph Garcia began to research this topic and then began to teach the parents of hearing infants. This was only to be followed by Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn in the 1990s to further develop the research and unlock the benefits to using sign language with hearing infants (History of Baby Sign Language). What started as a hypothesis among educators developed into this strategy to be able to communicate with babies and toddlers earlier than before.

Through research, there have been multiple benefits discovered regarding the use of sign language with hearing babies and toddlers. With using routine and consistently practicing with your child, signs can be learned as early as six months. Being able to communicate at such a young age brought on many benefits to both the parents and children. Babies and toddlers who learn sign language gain a sense of confidence, improved self-esteem, are able to navigate strong emotions, aiding in overall, speech development (Collingwood, 2016).

I am able to speak to this through firsthand experience. I began signing with my daughter, who is hearing, right from the beginning. I witnessed her reproducing signs at six months of age. She began talking earlier than her peers and would continue to build her vocabulary both verbally and through signing. At 18 months she was considered ‘advanced' in her language skills. Now at 21 months she is forming sentences and learning signs faster. If we are observing these skills and the research confirms the findings, why is teaching sign language to deaf babies and toddlers discouraged?

Teaching sign language to deaf babies and toddlers is a controversial topic. There are organizations that discourage against teaching ASL to deaf babies and toddlers and others who see it as a necessity. The Alexander Graham Bell Association of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, a well-known organization, is amongst those who would discourage teaching ASL to deaf infants. Their mission statement is to "help families, health care providers and education professionals understand childhood hearing loss and the importance of early diagnosis and intervention." However, the techniques used to achieve this mission include "[emphasizing] spoken language" this would be achieved by "teaching communication methods like lip reading, learning to speak…and using cochlear implant technology" (Ringo, 2013). This approach does not work for everyone. To the deaf parents of a deaf child, this is exciting and an opportunity to pass down their primary language and culture. To the hearing parents of a deaf child, the initial emotion may be fear. They don't know ASL, it is a foreign language, and they are bombarded with information regarding hearing aids, cochlear implants, and the names of speech therapists. They want to do what's right for their child but are not given all the information that they need. They need to hear that their child will not be at a disadvantage if they learn sign language, and there is the opportunity for them to be bilingual.

Deaf babies and toddlers will not be at a disadvantage with their language development if they learn sign language. "Deaf infants exposed to sign language hit all of the same developmental milestones as hearing children" (Schupner Congdon, 2016). During the time frame of birth through age three, the brain is geared for language development, and it does not discriminate against a spoken or a signed language. Teaching a deaf child to sign will set them up for success with furthering their literacy skills. It will develop their language, vocabulary, and reading skills. This in turn will allow the child to be bilingual with ASL and English.

When deaf babies and toddlers are introduced to and taught ASL it opens up the world of bilingualism. As the child grows and develops further language skills they will be able to sign, read and print English. "The bilingualism of the deaf child will involve the sign language used by the Deaf community and the oral language used by the hearing majority" (Grosjean, 2001). The deaf child has a great opportunity to become bilingual. The results will vary from child to child, but they all have the right to access these skills. Every parent, deaf or hearing, should give their child the ability to become fluent in two languages; whether it be ASL and oral English, or ASL and written English.

Sign language can provide beneficial language skills, promote language development, and provide the opportunity to be bilingual. Both hearing and deaf babies and toddlers receive benefits from using sign language; from being able to communicate to building vocabularies and additional language skills. Both hearing and deaf babies and toddlers meet developmental milestones for language development when taught ASL. If hearing and deaf babies and toddlers are continuously taught ASL they have the opportunity to be bilingual. If we are seeing that the benefits are the same, and the language development is achieved, then why is it still being discouraged to teach deaf babies and toddlers sign language? It shouldn't be, it should be encouraged, just as it is encouraged with their hearing peers.

Collingwood, J. (2016). Teaching your baby sign language can benefit both of you. Retrieved April 28, 2017, from Psych Central:

Grosjean, F. (2001). The right of the deaf child to grow up bilingual. Retrieved April 30, 2017, from
History of Baby Sign Language. (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2017, from Baby Sign Language :

Ringo, A. (2013, August 9). Understanding Deafness: Not everyone wants to be 'fixed' . Retrieved April 28, 2017, from The Atlantic:

Schupner Congdon, T. (2016, May 4). Revolutionizing the science of learning. Retrieved April 28, 2017, from Gallaudet University: Visual Language and Visual Learning :





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