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Language Acquisition:

Laurie Boggs
April 30, 2008


Speech and ASL Developmental Milestones

Laurie Boggs

        Many well-intended American's falsely assume that "speech" is the center of language, and our primary means of communication. Although this might be true for the vast majority of hearing American's, American Sign Language, not speech, is the visual-gestural language that is currently used by more than 2 million deaf American's as a primary means of communication (Rosenberg, 2006). Just as children who learn to speak acquire their speaking skills in an orderly progression, studies have shown that children who use signs as their primary mode of communication, similarly develop their gestural skills in an orderly progression (Bonvillian, Orlansky, Novack, 1983). Dr. Laura Petitto, a psychologist in Montreal stated that "new research strongly suggests that the brain has an innate capacity to learn language in a particular, stepwise fashion, by stringing together units into what eventually become meaningful words. The brain will progress from one stage to another regardless of whether language is conveyed through speaking, hand-signing, or any other method of communication" (Angier, 1991).

        Babies first learn their language by watching and/or listening to their caregivers speech or sign, which is typically provided in close proximity to the baby in a simple and repetitive manner. Hearing mothers initially engage in simple speech "turn taking" games, first cooing, then babbling, to their babies. They provide a variety of sounds or echo their babies sounds. They talk about the names of objects and actions in the babies environment, tell stories, read books, etc. Although much of this is done during close face-to-face interactions with caregiver and baby, this visual teaching is not the only way a hearing baby can learn language. Mother's who are deaf model signs during face-to- face interactions with their deaf babies. They mold the hands of their babies to form shapes of signs. They exaggerate their facial expressions and provide their models in the direct line of vision of their deaf babies (Andrews, Logan, Phelan, 2008). The caregivers of both hearing children and deaf children are believed to reinforce their children's early attempts at communication, thus encouraging further and more elaborate communication. Dr. Petitto noted that just as hearing parents reinforce the babbling of their children by talking back to them and turning their babbling into true words, i.e. "dadadada"....Daddy," so do the deaf parents of deaf children, by reinforcing their attempts at gestures by forming signs (Angier, 1991).

        Both a hearing child and a deaf child go through a series of amazing milestones in language from birth through one year of age. A hearing child exhibits differentiated cries (hungry, angry, sleepy, lonely) at approximately 1-2 months of age. He/she is aware of his/her environment; enjoys human interaction; smiles; and plays with his/her hands and fingers. He/she begins to making cooing noises at approximately 2-3 months of age, and begins babbling (combination of consonants and vowels produced randomly and seemingly without meaning) between 3-6 months of age. At around 6 months of age, a hearing child will begin producing jargon speech, which resembles "adult speech" in the differentiated intonation of strings of consonant and vowel combinations. Many hearing children will produce their first few words between 12-18 months of age.

        A deaf child, born to deaf parents using ASL, similarly is aware of his/her environment, enjoys human interaction, smiles, and enjoys hand play from birth to 3 months of age. From 3-6 months a deaf child also begins to babble, referred to as "fingerbabbling" (Andrews, Logan, Phelan, 2008). "These gestures of the deaf children do not have real meaning, any more than babble noises have meaning, but they are far more systematic and deliberate than are the random finger flutters and fist clenches of hearing babies" (Angier, 1991). Between 6-12 months, deaf children will use manual jargon, and will communicate with gestures, such as pulling and pointing. Many deaf children will sign their first word around 8 months of age and up to 10 or more signs by 12 months of age (Andrews, Logan, Phelan, 2008).

        Later language developmental milestones (from 1-4 years of age) further evidence a strikingly similar order of progression. "The phonology, syntax, semantics, morphology and pragmatic aspects of language are acquired around 4 years of age whether the parental input is in sign or spoken language" (Andrews, Logan, Phelan, 2008).


Andrews, J., Logan, R., Phelan, J. (2008). Milestones of Language Development. Advance for Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 16-20.


Angier, N. (1991). Deaf babies use their hands to babble, researcher finds. The New York Times. Retrieved 21, April 2008: <> .

Bonvillian, J., Orlansky, M., Novack, L. (1983). Developmental milestones: sign language acquisition and motor development. JSTOR: Child Development, Vol. 54, No. 6, pp. 1435-1445.

Rosenberg, K. (2006). Baby Sign Language. Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc.


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