Deaf Again Autoresponder Course Part Six

If signing with hearing babies has proven to be so successful, why aren’t we encouraged to sign with our deaf babies, the ones who need it the most?

--MaryAnne Kowalczyk

In the movie Meet the Fockers, Robert DeNiro plays an obsessed grandfather hell-bent on teaching ASL to his infant grandson. He’s fully aware of the cognitive and linguistic benefits that come with early exposure to ASL. He understands that babies are able to build a solid language base in ASL long before their vocal cords develop. It’s a logical head start.

What’s illogical, then, is that in spite of the baby sign language craze that followed after the movie—and in spite of research dating back to the ‘80s that validate its effectiveness—there are still plenty of people out there who deny deaf babies the opportunity to learn sign language. (MaryAnne Kowalczyk’s quote above points out the absurdity better than I ever could).

These and other developments encouraged me to take a closer look at how I communicate at home. With my two older sons (born in 1999 and 2001), my wife and I have always used ASL and English. It’s truly a bilingual household. But we didn’t give it much thought because hey, we’re deaf. It’s only natural that we sign at home.

By the time my daughter Lacey was born in June of 2005, I’d seen enough controversy out there to realize it was time to do some personal research. I wanted specific numbers and data to back up my overwhelmingly positive experience.

So, armed with a copy of The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby—From Birth to Age Two (By William Sears, M.D. and Martha Sears, R.N.), I learned that the following is considered normal language development for (non-signing) babies between 9 and 12 months of age:

  • Can make two-syllable sounds such as “ma-ma” or “da-da”
  • Associates sounds with the right person
  • Understands “no”
  • Can imitate sounds
  • Understands gestures (such as waving bye-bye)
All right, then. Using my own daughter as a guinea pig, we now have a frame of reference for a signing baby. Here’s what Lacey had at a very early age:

  • An extended vocabulary including words and names such as Mommy, Daddy, Darren, Brandon, Grandmom, funny, water, baby, The Wiggles, finished, all gone, yes, no, bye-bye, ball, dog, cat, eat, sleep, potty, bath, Elmo, Cookie Monster, Big Bird, and more.
  • Ability to communicate in multiple-word sentences such as “Where’s the kitty cat? “Where’s the ball?” “Found it!” “Daddy’s funny” “Lacey got a boo-boo” “Diaper stinks, whew!” and more.
The kicker? All of the aforementioned linguistic adventures happened by the tender age of eleven months. According to The Baby Book, it’s usually around 18 to 24 months when a hearing, non-signing baby approaches this level of communication (and speaking in sentences is actually more common between 24 and 36 months).

Lacey isn’t alone. There are other signing babies, both deaf and hearing, who are doing the same thing. I have several deaf friends raising babies of their own and it’s fascinating to watch them all signing at remarkably early ages.

Unfortunately, when a baby is identified as deaf these days, the odds are more likely that he or she will be nudged towards a path that avoids sign language as much as possible.

Look, I’m not an absolutist; if a deaf or hard of hearing child prefers auditory-verbal methods and would much rather use speech and technology to get by in this world, I’m fine with it. I’m just saying that at the earliest stages of life, a baby—any baby—has the ability to communicate with its hands long before his or her vocal cords develop.

This is an opportunity to stimulate the brain with language at a remarkably early age. The benefits are irrefutable. A mind wired for language, a higher IQ, an expanded vocabulary, fewer temper tantrums, more bonding with parents… who wouldn’t want this?

Also, keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be choose one. You’d be surprised at how many deaf people can both speak and sign. Contrary to popular myth, one communication method does not cause the other to suffer. While it’s true that it’s not a good idea to sign and speak at the same time, there are a number of kids who have the ability to code switch between the two languages. (Yes, English and ASL are two separate languages. Don’t let anyone tell you different.) Can you imagine trying to speak Spanish and Russian at the same time? Same idea. But many kids can easily become fluent in several different languages—in fact, it’s much easier for children than adults—so there’s nothing wrong with a child learning Spanish, French, Russian, German…and ASL.

Last but not least, back to the ever-expanding baby sign language craze: it’s gone beyond babies. At the 2007 American Sign Language Teachers Association (ASLTA) Conference, Keynote Signer Ella Mae Lentz quoted statistics that indicated there was a 432% increase in enrollment in higher education ASL classes between the years of 1998 and 2002. So in addition to hearing babies, we now have hearing college students learning ASL en masse. (Incidentally, several high schools are now hopping on the bandwagon.)

This is an exciting development and it gives us hope for the future. The huge numbers of signing babies and high school /college students could conceivably mean that the next generation of deaf children is more likely to encounter people in the world at large who have a better understanding of ASL and Deaf culture.

It’s a beautiful thing. If you can’t take my word for it, check with Robert DeNiro.

UPDATE: After this article was written, a growing body of research emerged. Most recently, renowned neuroscientist Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto’s groundbreaking research at the National Science Foundation Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2) has effectively shown the value of early exposure to ASL.

Furthermore, this research busts an ongoing (and harmful) myth that ASL should not be used with deaf children who have cochlear implants. Quite the contrary, ASL exposure improves a deaf child’s ability to benefit from cochlear implants. This has been mentioned in other research as well.

For example:

“This study confirms that second-generation deaf children exceed deaf children of hearing parents in terms of cochlear implantation performance. Encouraging deaf children to communicate in sign language from a very early age, before cochlear implantation, appears to improve their ability to learn spoken language after cochlear implantation.”

-- Dr S Hassanzadeh, Iran Cochlear Implant Center

Outcomes of cochlear implantation in deaf children of deaf parents: comparative study (2012)


“Sign vocabulary acquired before cochlear implantation supports rather than impedes acquisition of spoken vocabulary, and the introduction of new words in sign as well as speech supports their acquisition in spoken form.”

“Expressive use of signs supports, and is not detrimental to, children’s use of speech when diagnosis and intervention occur early.”

-- Mark Marschark, Ph D & Patricia E. Spencer, Ph D

Evidence of Best Practice Models and Outcomes in the Education of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children: An International Review (2009)

The message is clear: There is no either/or. You can have both. Efforts to exclude ASL are outdated. ASL, in fact, has proven to be the most reliable form of language acquisition—for both hearing and deaf babies—at a remarkably early age.

Next in the Deaf Again autoresponder course: Putting it all together.