One of the questions/concerns/fears that comes up most frequently when I talk about sign language with other parents is huge:
Will signing with my child delay his/her speech?
Let me just say, I get it! I completely understand where the fear comes from. We want the best for our children, and we don’t want to do anything that might mess them up. What a lot of pressure!
Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating, but the bottom line is this:
every child is different and will develop at his/her own pace.
Yes, there are things we can do to help our children along, like reading books everyday and singing songs and playing silly games. But some kids are slow to walk. Some kids are slow to talk. And some kids take forever to potty train!
(Then again, some kids are early walkers, early talkers, early readers, and that comes with its own unique set of challenges.)
Let me tell you a little bit about our family:
We have two daughters who are as different as night and day. They are both sweet as pie, but raising #2 has been the polar opposite of our experience with #1!
Our older daughter is a walking miracle. Our girl was born at 26 weeks, weighing 1 pound, 8 ounces. She spent 135 days in the NICU, had five surgeries before her third birthday (four before coming home from the hospital for the first time), and has permanent peripheral vision loss due to an amazing, innovative procedure designed to keep her retinas from detaching.
Fast-forward several months, and it probably won’t surprise you that A had developmental delays, despite her 1:1 caregiver/child ratio and weekly occupational therapy sessions. Our ECI team recommended we start speech therapy at the age of 18 months, and we agreed. My notes from that first session say, “A made lots of sounds.”
Our amazing Speech and Language Pathologist (Ms. Tina) recommended we start signing with A to jump start her speech. Her rationale was simple: we could gently place our hands on top of A’s hands to help her start signing! And it worked.
In just a couple of months, A was speaking and signing at a level close to the peers born around her original due date. After a year of speech therapy, she was caught up with children her actual age. By the time she “tested out” of therapy on her third birthday, her speech was estimated to be at the 60 month/5 year level.
We loved signing with A (still do!), so we knew we would sign with our second daughter from the beginning. K is our full-term miracle. We had no idea if I would be able to carry a baby past 26 weeks, and she amazed us! K was born at 37 weeks: 5 pounds, 6 ounces of pure sweetness!
K was a very quiet baby (she lives in a very LOUD house). By her first birthday, I knew she understood what we were saying to her, but choosing not to speak. She was also very slow to sign back to us, though she responded whenever we signed milk, eat, cookie, play, etc.
She was signing milk and more sporadically, but started signing in earnest at around 14-15 months. By the 18 month mark–the age we started signing with A–K had well over 20 signs and about 5 words (mama, dada, uh-oh, more, nana). She’s now 20 months old* and can sign about 70 words. Her speech is exploding. She says about five new words a day (words she already knew the sign for), knows several opposite pairs (up/down, hot/cold, dirty/clean), and a couple colors. (Her favorite sign is rainbow.)
Will signing delay speech?
This quote from Rachel Coleman, co-creator of Signing Time, has stuck with me (published in a blog post written September 2011):
“Language doesn’t delay language. The fear of signing is ridiculous and thinking that a child will not talk because they first signed is as preposterous as saying, “don’t let your child crawl or they will never learn to walk.” Babies crawl before they walk and they sign before they talk. If your child has the ability to deliver a spoken language, they will acquire that skill whether or not you sign with them. If they happen to have a speech delay or a disability that gets in the way of speaking, then thank heavens you are signing with them and giving them a way to be understood. If your child’s speech is delayed, it is not the signing that delays speech… it is something else entirely, because communication doesn’t delay communication.”
When K was barely speaking at 18 months, I was concerned and frustrated that we might have to do speech therapy again. I said so many times to my husband and to my friends, “I am just thankful she signs! How great that we know what she wants!” In just a few short months, she caught up and surpassed “normal speech” for children her age.
Those children that crawl early, walk early, climb early? They are most likely to enjoy and benefit from signing because their bodies are already so busy. What better way to communicate?
I do think it’s important that every family do what is best for their unique situation. I would be happy to help you find sign language resources to get started/keep going, if that interests you!
One more thing: I have never had a parent say to me, “I wish I hadn’t used sign language with my children.” But many, many, many (including myself) have said, “I wish I had started sooner!”
* 2016 update: K is now five years old and extremely well-spoken. She reads (like her big sister) and is very passionate about sign language. We are working on ASL grammar with the goal of making it our family’s second language.
This post was originally published on our previous blog, lonestarsigners.com, on May 6, 2013.