Signing is like a bridge to verbal communication, like a taste of what that communication can be. Children begin to understand that they can make themselves understand, even if they can’t make proper vocalizations yet. Researchers Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn are often quoted as saying that signing is to language as walking is to crawling. It’s a step along the way.
Communication start earlier with signing, but there’s more good news. Researchers have also documented higher schores in vocabulary and other cognitive tests for signing children in comparison with their non-signing peers. Those advantages have been documented as holding strong in children at 8 years of age.
Marilyn Daniels, probably the most prolific researcher on the signing with non-verbal hearing children, has done some very interesting writing on the left-brain, right-brain aspect of language vs sign language. Language and speech are left-brain activities. Signing is a visuospatial activity, which is a right-brain activity. So you have increased cross-brain connections for words and concepts beginning at a very early age. She goes on to document how this left- and right-brain association with a word or concept is why the use of sign language is such a boost to reading readiness.
Signs are usually iconographic. They very often mimic what they mean. This can have important conceptual benefits. My favorite example of the mimicking nature of signs comes from the ocean, and the signs for FISH and WHALE. They look like what they are. They are both swimming in water. At some point in their young lives, we teach children about the differences between fish and mammals that live in the sea. One physiological distinction is the orientation of the tail in fish and sea mammals. The signs provide the answer: a fish’s tail is vertical, while a whale’s tail is horizontal. That’s one example of how sign language can enhance not only early communication, but later reading, retention and understanding of concepts.
For those children who are late speakers, sign language has been shown to be especially helpful to the children and their families and caretakers. More importantly, these children do not miss out on the developmental activities associated with late speaking. Researcher Marilyn Daniels discusses the important window of opportunity for children in their early years, and how, for those whose speech develops later, sign language helps prevent developmental lags associated with late speaking. Marilyn Daniels’ book “Dancing with Words” is a wealth of information on the research and application of ASL for hearing children.
Sign language an active communication and learning activity. Sign language uses gross motor and fine motor skills and promotes their development.
Since ASL is a bona-fide language, children receive the benefits of second language learning and bilingualism even before they can speak. More and more schools are offering sign language as a second language. And one more point about bilingualism or multilingualism. Hearing children who also know sign language tend to have an easier time learning another spoken language. That right-brain visuospatial image of the word seems to help the acquisition of foreign language words.
In pre-school and daycare settings, sign language offers tremendous advantages. In multilingual and multicultural settings, the use of ASL as a common language can be an important asset for children and their teachers and caretakers.