There are many benefits to be derived when you teach your children Sign Language. The main reason I first started teaching Gavin to sign was to help reduce tantrums. Aside from reducing tantrums, it has been found that babies who learn to sign usually also learn to speak earlier.
Sign Language and Cognitive Ability
It appears that these are not the only benefits to be derived from teaching a child to sign. In his book “Brain Rules for Baby”, John Medina wrote:
Learning sign language may boost cognition by 50 percent
Gestures and speech used similar neural circuits as they developed in our evolutionary history. University of Chicago psycholinguist David McNeill was the first to suggest this. He thought nonverbal and verbal skills might retain their strong ties even though they’ve diverged into separate behavioral spheres. He was right. Studies confirmed it with a puzzling finding: People who could no longer move their limbs after a brain injury also increasingly lost their ability to communicate verbally. Studies of babies showed the same direct association. We now know that infants do not gain a more sophisticated vocabulary until their fine-motor finger control improves. That’s a remarkable finding. Gestures are “windows into thought processes,” McNeill says.
Could learning physical gestures improve other cognitive skills? One study hints that it could, though more work needs to be done. Kids with normal hearing took an American Sign Language class for nine months, in the first grade, then were administered a series of cognitive tests. Their attentional focus, spatial abilities, memory, and visual discrimination scores improved dramatically—by as much as 50 percent—compared with controls who had no formal instruction.
Even if you didn’t teach your baby Sign Language and helping your child to communicate with you is no longer your primary concern, it appears that there are cognitive benefits to be gained from teaching your child to sign.
Sign Language as a Second Language
Medina also states in his book that babies are born with the capacity to speak any language:
At birth, your baby can distinguish between the sounds of every language that has ever been invented. Professor Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, discovered this phenomenon. She calls kids at this age “citizens of the world”. Chomsky puts it this way: We are not born with the capacity to speak a specific language. We are born with the capacity to speak any language.
Unfortunately, this ability is usually lost by the end of the first year unless your baby has been exposed to the sounds of a second language by the end of the first six months. Additionally, the second language must be spoken by a live person, not a recording or even a video recording.
So what happens to children whose parents who are monolingual? It appears that Sign Language can serve as a second language. Learning Sign Language helps children develop the language center of their brain in the same way that learning a second spoken language does. If your child can only speak one language, being able to sign can make it easier for your child to learn a second spoken language later in life.
Sign Language Programs
We use Signing Time. Signing Time is a series of DVDs that teach basic everyday signs through music. They introduce each word with the written word, a picture of the word, and an explanation of how to sign the word. Take a look at the video below for an example of the word “cook”:
It is then followed by video clips of various children signing the word so parents can see the variations in how children sign the same word. Small children have difficulties signing the exact sign so it helps to see the different variations that crop up.
The sign is then incorporated into a song – for example the following song is about “animals” in the zoo:
Signing Time also comes with music CDs of their songs so you can sing and sign along with your child. You can also get Signing Time board books and flashcards. Although once you learn the signs, you can sign along with any book.
To maximise the benefits from Signing Time, parents should watch the DVD with their children so they can learn the signs, too. Remember, children will learn best when the signs are incorporated into their daily activities on a regular basis. Watching the DVDs alone is not sufficient. The reason why I like the DVDs is that it makes it a lot easier for me to learn how to sign with my children.
I have a couple of Sign Language books but I found it hard to decipher how to sign the word from the pictures. Alternatively, you can try other Sign Language programs, although they aren’t as fun for children. It might be something worth getting into if you wish to progress further than the basic signs.