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American Sign Language: Nonverbal

Judy:  Some students go to speech therapy. Is it ok to use sign language with nonverbal students? They are not hearing impaired.

Bill:  The term verbal can mean, "using words" and it can also mean, "spoken" as in a "verbal contract."  When I use the term "nonverbal" in regards to a child, I'm referring to someone who doesn't use words or signs. Many people use the term nonverbal to mean a person who doesn't speak. 

Let me phrase the question as, "Is it okay to use sign language with children who don't talk?"

By "is it okay" you probably mean, "Will the child's eventual development of speech be delayed or negatively affected by the acquisition and use of sign language?"

Sign language actually speeds up the acquisition of spoken language. My wife's first language was ASL.  She didn't learn to talk until later.  It was a good thing that she had access to ASL because it allowed her brain to develop important cognitive abilities that she was able to use later to develop spoken language. My wife and I can both testify that ASL has immensely helped our daughter, Sarah.  Not only has ASL reduced Sarah's frustration level, it has provided a foundation upon which she could develop speech.

The research I've read also indicates that the use of ASL improves a child's acquisition of speech.

One of the reasons for this is ASL provides an additional way for the brain to get a handle on a concept. The more ways a person's mind experiences a concept, the more likely his mind is to be able to recall that concept. If you both see and hear a concept, you'll understand it better and retain it longer than if you only hear the concept without seeing it.

I certainly encourage all parents and teachers to consider using ASL with their children.  I have been unable to find any research in the world that shows any harm to teaching a child how to sign.  On the other hand, I HAVE seen quite a few studies showing positive benefits to teaching both deaf and hearing children how to sign.  If you find a valid, reliable study indicating otherwise--please do let me know.

Judy:  Is this a culture?

Bill:  If you are asking, "Do Deaf people have a culture that is distinct and separate from that of hearing people?" --the answer is yes.  Deaf people who participate in the Deaf Community and who use ASL tend to possess a different set of values and norms and mores than possessed by hearing people.  Generally, culturally-Deaf people don't want to become hearing.  If you offered them a "magic pill" to become hearing, they wouldn't take it.  Please understand, not all "physically deaf" people are "culturally deaf."  Just because a person loses their hearing doesn't mean that they instantly "think like a culturally Deaf person."  Deaf culture is learned by associating with members of the Deaf community.  Traditionally Deaf culture has been transmitted via attendance at state residential schools for the deaf.


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