It is ironic to many educators and deaf people to see the widespread interest in using ‘baby sign’ with hearing babies, when there is still confusion and apprehension about using sign language with deaf babies. Many researchers have now demonstrated that early use of sign language with deaf babies is effective for stimulating the development of language pathways in the brain (e.g. Mayberry, 2007), and that it does not prevent the development of speech but may actually enhance it (e.g. Yoshinago-Itano, 2006). Early use of sign language advocated as a way to protect against the likelihood of linguistic and cognitive disadvantage if spoken language is not acquired within the critical period (e.g. Humphries et al., 2012).
Deaf babies and young children will only receive these benefits if they have early and regular exposure to fluent, meaningful sign language. Their families can be supported to provide such exposure, however this can be challenging as it is a new language for the majority of families. Effective early education programs include fluent deaf signers and mentors as part of the teams working with families and children. The New Zealand government recently committed significant funding to such an initiative (Scoop Independent News, 2014), acknowledging that training, resources and well-supported staff are needed to make it work well.
Learning sign languages such as Auslan can be made more successful and enjoyable with well-developed resources such as Deaf Children Australia’s CommuniCATE kit, tailored programs and flexible, competent teachers. It’s also important for families to know about other communication strategies that will make signing (and all communication) more effective (Harris, 2010):
- Maintaining joint attention with babies so that they can see the signing around them. Once babies start attending to other things in their environment, caregivers need to become creative about moving their signing into the baby’s field of vision, signing on or near the object the baby is looking at, or on the baby’s body.
- Using signing effectively when reading or interacting with books, e.g. making name-signs for characters in favourite books, signing on the pictures, and using depicting signs (classifiers) to show how objects on the page might move.
- Understanding that young children will make phonological errors when they begin to sign, similar to the errors hearing children make when learning to speak. They will substitute easier handshapes for more complex ones (such as signing DADDY with the ‘point’ handshape rather than the usual ‘H’ handshape), or moving the whole torso rather than just the arms when producing a sign like BABY.
Yoshinaga-Itano (2014) recently published guidelines for early intervention programs, developing the work of the Joint Committee on Infant Hearing in the USA. These guidelines include a useful checklist for evaluating programs which use sign language – such as modelling infant-direct sign and incorporating visual skill development. The guidelines and checklist emphasise the importance of identifying, responding to and expanding the child’s early attempts at communication, and showing the family how to do this too.
Continuing research and improved design and resourcing of sign-inclusive programs will give deaf children opportunities to stimulate the important language pathways in their brains as early as possible, maximise their opportunities to learn spoken language, and become bilingual with all the demonstrated cognitive advantages that bilingualism brings.
Deaf Children Australia. (2012). CommuniCATE: Auslan for beginners. Melbourne, Vic: Deaf Children Australia.
Harris, M. (2010). Early communication in sign and speech. In M. Marschark & P. E. Spencer (Eds.), Oxford handbook of deaf studies, language and education(Vol. 2, pp. 316-330). New York: Oxford University Press.
Humphries, T., Kushalnagar, P., Mathur, G., Napoli, D. J., Padden, C., Rathmann, C., & Smith, S. R. (2012). Language acquisition for deaf children: Reducing the harms of zero tolerance to the use of alternative approaches. Harm Reduction Journal, 9(16), 1-9.
Yoshinaga-Itano, C. (2006). Early identification, communication modality, and the development of speech and spoken language skills: Patterns and considerations. In P. E. Spencer & M. Marschark (Eds.), Advances in the spoken language development of deaf and hard of hearing children (pp. 298-327). New York: Oxford University Press.
Yoshinaga-Itano, C. (2014). Principles and guidelines for early intervention after confirmation that a child is deaf or hard of hearing. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 19(2), 143-175.