Using Sign Language to Enhance Language Development

by Melanie Soneson, Career Pathways Coordinator, Denver’s Early Childhood Council

Melanie Soneson

Growing up with two Deaf parents, many ask the question, “How did you learn to speak?” My answer is always, “My mother and father speak well and exposure to spoken language is not few and far between.” It is heard through being taken to the grocery store, the bank, the hair salon, playing with friends, being surrounded by family members, and speaking and signing with my parents.

American Sign Language (ASL) is a complete, complex language in which you use your hands, facial expressions and posture of your body to communicate with one another. Each country or region has a different set of complex signs used stemming from their own culture. For example, an American who knows ASL may not understand someone who uses British Sign Language (BSL).

Learning how to speak is so incredibly important, but growing up with Deaf parents, I learned how to read emotions, body language and facial expressions with precision and rapidity.

According to Albert Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 Rule of Personal Communication, only a small percentage of communication involves ACTUAL words: 7% to be exact! In fact, 55% of communication is VISUAL (body language and eye contact) and 38% is vocal (pitch, speed, volume, and tone of voice. This makes up a total of 93% non-verbal communication!

The inclusion of sign language into a child’s daily regime can improve his/her language development. Infants and toddlers who use sign language may learn to talk sooner, understand and use more words, use longer sentences, and may feel more secure and confident. Additionally, combining sign language with spoken language in the learning process is an incredibly useful and inclusive tool for promoting social-emotional and positive behavior support.

Children with little or no words often get frustrated, throw temper tantrums, or are unable to engage socially. Imagine if no one understood what you were trying to say all the time. How frustrating would that be? Feeling understood, even as an adult, is an integral part of your self-esteem, confidence and ability to connect with others. Children who are given the tools to express themselves have fewer of these challenging behavioral traits. When children are given words, whether spoken or signed, they then have the ability to tell you what they want without getting frustrated and are able to express their feelings in a positive way, let you know if they are hurt or sick, and start to use important manners earlier in life.

If you’re concerned the children in your care will be delayed in their speech by learning sign language, be aware that research shows this is not the case. A study by Kelly, McDevitt, and Esch from the Language and Cognitive Processes department at Colgate University in New York, has shown that meaningful hand movements and gestures which activate this area of the brain make learning a new word easier. Additionally, “some professionals working with young hearing children with Deaf parents have expressed concerns about the potential spoken language delay based on the presumption that the child lacks adequate speech input in the home environment. However, there is little to no evidence to support this conclusion. Many hearing children of Deaf parents do develop speech and language normally if their family life is otherwise normal and they have some exposure to normal hearing speakers (approximately 5-10 hours a week seems to be enough).” – Schiff-Myers, Deaf Parents and Their Hearing Children.

Growing up with Deaf parents, people often ask, “How did you learn to speak?” My answer, sometimes, is, “How did you?”


Want to learn more about using sign language in your classroom? I am able to come to any site on a fee-for-service basis and provide customized programming. If you are a participating provider, your QI funds will cover this service.

You can also come to my session “Using Sign Language to Promote Positive Behavior” on Saturday, March 2, 2019 at 9:15 in the Spruce Room at the Rocky Mountain Early Childhood Conference!

Questions? Contact me directly at melanie@denverearlychildhood.org.

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