We love the pictures and videos of babies learning American Sign Language, ASL (or any other sign language of your country) to ask for “more milk” or “cookie” or “play.” It is a great help to parents; but it is also making our babies smarter, according to the experts.
The research tells us that language building begins at birth; and the more ways we engage our children in language activities along with play, the better and sooner our babies will develop. That is why you see parents teaching their babies Spanish or French numbers, colors, and basic words. It became popular to not only read to your children and build with alphabet blocks, but to do it in more than one spoken language. Then more research came about saying ASL signs would make your baby smarter, too; so it became popular to add that to our early lessons. It is an awesome idea and definitely works to better build language basics.
Does that change if your baby can’t hear? Some hearing parents seem to think so. After they hear those words that their baby is different, broken, deaf, the parents fear for their baby’s future in the world they know. The parents may think they must do something – anything – to cure their baby and give them a future in the world they think is best, their world, the hearing world. Those are normal fears and thoughts. They are also not wrong, though the Deaf world is a good place, too. Every family is different. Every situation is different. The choices made have to be different, too. Research the options, and decide what is best for your family. That could be to learn ASL and embrace Deaf culture, or it could be to opt for a cochlear implant and try to help your child bridge the gap to the hearing world. Or, your family could even decide to try to make the best of both worlds. The decision is up to you.
Regardless of your decision, though, don’t dismiss the good that other hearing parents (and possibly you, before your child’s diagnosis) found in the studies of ASL and language acquisition. Those studies are still just as valid, if not more so. Even with early implantation of a cochlear implant, building language from sound alone will take time, and possibly more time than a child with normal hearing. Adding that ASL along with other sound therapies may just increase language foundation development as it does for children with normal hearing. Learning ASL alone won’t necessarily make your child Deaf culturally or prevent your child from being comfortably part of the hearing world.
Since time is of the essence in preparing a child for formal learning and life 9and even more so for a child without normal hearing0, use ASL to enrich the first lessons about a child’s surroundings with visual information as well as auditory. Understanding is increased more quickly when they have a visual “word” for a concept or object; and that understanding can decrease the amount of time that the same auditory word is understood by attaching meaning to visual symbol, and then the visual symbol provides a means to attach the meaning to the sound symbol heard. The important thing is that the object in the environment is given a meaningful symbol for communication to begin. If providing a visual symbol along with the sound symbol decreases the amount of time needed for the child to attach and retain meaning, why wouldn’t you want to use it? Success in the world depends on understanding and then communicating that understanding. Give plenty of different ways for the child to access that knowledge and help them to do that as quickly as possible. That should be the goal. Anything else pales in importance.
ASL, visual sign language, can be an important means of providing understanding to any child (and possibly more quickly than auditory symbols alone) while it also provides linguistic skill foundation in another language besides the verbal. This will only add to brain development and intelligence. All children can benefit from it, so don’t deprive a child with hearing loss of its benefits.