October 17, 2002
Merle L. Haskins
"The quality of our thoughts is
bordered on all sides by our facility with language."
J. Michael Straczynski
Using ASL to Enhance Early Language Acquisition
The borders began to increase the quality of thought
in the United States when Reverend Gallaudet met Dr. Cogswell and his
daughter, Alice. It was then, in the beginning of the nineteenth century,
that the American facility with language began to expand its borders and the
quality of our thoughts followed.
The metamorphosis moves to a second phase over thirty
years ago with Dr. Burton White who publishes the results of his work and
resultant philosophy in a book titled, The First Three Years.
Add to this mix the work of Howard Gardner. Dr.
Gardner’s interest in creativity begins in the early 1970’s when he
studies the relationship of art and human development. His 1980 book, Artful
Scribbles, examined the blossoming of creativity in young children and
its decrease as they mature. Gardner concludes that toward the end of early
childhood, young children rely on their newly developed linguistic skills
and no longer need to communicate in nonverbal ways like drawing.
Then to fifteen years ago in 1987 when Joseph Garcia,
working on part of his Master’s Program research, investigates at what age
an infant can, through the augmenting use of sign language, engage in
What Garcia found was that infants consistently and
regularly exposed to sign language at the age of six months could begin
expressive communication at or near eight months. The key and emphasis here
is "consistently and regularly" exposed; parents need to
acknowledge commitment to the endeavor-- it need not be just mom or dad who
has taken on the task—and the number of signs does not need to be
extensive or excessive.
The reasoning supporting Garcia’s work is solid:
Children can communicate with their hands much sooner that they can master
the mechanics of verbal voice communication. Reduce frustration in
communication, a recognized roadblock for any cognitive development, and
communication will be enhanced.
There are ancillary benefits to using sign language
with infants as young as six months.
The early use of sign language will assist children in
expanding their expressive language because expressive language is tied to
the ability to understand context and the construction of sentences. The
rate of speech is more controlled when sign language is used. Even when sign
language is not used in its entirety, the speed with which a person speaks
(provided that person is not "expert" in the use of sign language)
will be slower to some degree. The slower rate allows for an increase in the
chance of understanding the message transmitted, which increases the chance
for successful communication. Finally, the visual cue itself is helping in
the communication process. In this there is a return to Dr. Gardner’s work
dealing with multiple intelligences. Sign language helps with the visual
cues that address one modality of communication, and the kinesthetic cues
which address another modality of communication.
The conclusion is reasonable and appropriate. The
consistent and regular exposure to a limited range of basic, situationally
appropriate elements of sign language can enhance and accelerate the
acquisition of verbal communication in early childhood development. Add to
this the tertiary benefit of a less frustrated child—and a less frustrated
adult in interaction with that child—and the family environment becomes
even more loving and connected… a situation without challenge.
Brady, Diane. (2000) Look who’s talking—with their hands.
BusinessWeek Online:August 14, 2000 Issue. Retrieved 28 September 2002:
Garcia, Joseph. Sign With Your Baby: How to Communicate With
Infants Before They Can Speak. Bellingham, WA: Stratton Kehil
Publishing, Inc., 1999.
Gretz, Sharon. (2002) Using sign language with children who have
aprazia of speech. Apraxia-Kids. Childhood Apraxia of Speech
Association. Retrieved 11 September 2002: <http://www.apraxia-kids.org/topics/sign.html>.