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Language Acquisition, Early: Using ASL to Enhance

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 expressive communication.

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: <>.

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