INFANTS AND AMERICAN SIGN LANGUAGE:
TINY HAND-SIGNS BREAKING STRONG LANGUAGE BARRIERS
Written By: Jessica D. Lovett
Introduction to American Sign Language for Infants:
When babies make efforts to communicate through sounds, babbles, and coos while parents try to intercept those messages and process them into “words” that the parent can understand, many times in the context of a stressful or rushed situation, the results can be chaotic. Fortunately, leaps and bounds are currently being made in communication studies in child development fields that address this problem development by incorporating American Sign Language into their daily speech along with spoken language in order to facilitate high benefits for infant’s cognitive, language, social, and emotional developments. Since “language affects our thought processes and how we perceive reality,” the significance of the manner by which babies gain language into their lives and the importance of optimistic possibilities of advancements to simplify these processes cannot be over emphasized (Holaday, Gonzales, and Mills, 482).
Studies are also discovering that younger babies than were previously believed are able to participate and understand sign language. Dependant on their individual rates of learning and development, infants do not have the abilities to formulate coherent words until generally the age of twelve to sixteen months or later. The production of sign language involves two large articulators (the hands) moving through space and contacting the body. In contrast, speech production requires small movements of the tongue and vocal tract with no observable spatial contrasts. Nonetheless, both language types exhibit a sublexical layer of structure with similar properties (e.g., segments, syllables, feature hierarchies). (Emmorey, Mehta, and Grabowski, 202)
So, talking and forming words involves several more variables than hand-speak does involved including speech, lip movement, tongue movement, and the like, that are a more complicated process that babies cannot directly see the inner workings of in order to properly imitate as well as they can see signs. Babies only begin to be able to formulate compound word sentences when they are anywhere from eighteen to twenty-one months old (Garcia, 14-18).
Even as, “Importantly, infants (both hearing and deaf) exposed to ASL [American Sign Language] from birth acquire sign language along the same developmental timeline as infants acquiring a spoken language,” sign language can be acquired with the baby’s given set of skills and cognitive development at a much earlier age than any spoken language can and, in addition, learning to sign through the speech patterns established in ASL aids in the development of the spoken language as well (Krentz and Corina, 1). New ideas and concepts have been being tested in recent years and they have come to exciting conclusions about the rates that infants can learn to communicate in both emotionally and developmentally satisfactory ways.
New Discoveries In The Field of Child Development:
One of the most compelling new discoveries is that, since children do very well know what they want before they can feasibly communicate it, studies are finding out that rather than keep parents and caregivers guessing at their wishes, babies are able to communicate with their hands as they do in ASL much more easily than they can with their mouths in verbally spoken language. This results in less stress for both parent and baby. That way, both parties – parent and baby – get to feel the joy of having one’s innermost meaning clearly understood by another human and also the joy of having one’s needs, both emotional and physical, being met. Negative interactions oftentimes ending with confusion on both parts and unmet needs can end positively and more expediently, the parent able to react to the child’s needs, help with emotional needs, and react appropriately to the child’s observations about the world around them.
Look at it as a window into the mind of an infant. What used to be the realm of the imagination can become a reality: parents can know exactly what their child is thinking because their child will be capable of telling them. There are several cases of a child too young to speak verbally begin to start a conversation in ASL with an adult about such things as a dog they see in the park, something that they are wanting to share with the parent, a preference in likes or dislikes, etc. The parent has the capability to get to know their child much sooner than the use of only verbal communication can allow since hand-speak is attainable and physically possible at a much earlier rate than verbal-speak is physically possible for an infant.
Besides the fact that basic needs are being met sooner and not laced with a frustration-filled process of getting to that point of fulfillment, the child feels power over their own capabilities and is then naturally placed in a confidence-developing situation. The baby not only is able to develop a sense of autonomy in communicating to caregivers what he or she needs or desires, but also is given the opportunity to be praised for their accomplishments. The child is being presented with the task of learning an entirely new language and being able to gain mastery over their own speech at a much earlier rate, relating to those around them at possibly over a year before their non-signing peers. Findings like these could very well render the term “terrible twos” a thing of the past, and, in its wake, raising up a generation of well adjusted, competent and skilled adult communicators.
Dr. Joseph Garcia, foremost child language development researcher, asserts that signing babies:
who used symbolic gestures early learned to speak more readily than those babies who did not. [Research also indicates that] … the signing babies scored higher on intelligence tests, understood more words, had larger vocabularies, and engaged in more sophisticated play. (Garcia, 24)
Signing babies also have an “above-average understanding of English syntax” (Garcia, 24).
Research About the Proper Age to Incorporate ASL Into Speech with Infants:
It is recommended and generally agreed upon by theorists that parents begin to teach signs to their children at around their sixth or seventh month, or possibly as late as eight to eleven months, since research has shown thus far that the memory of an infant is only developed enough to remember a sign for future reference by about their seventh month of life. In most cases, the earliest repetition of a sign is at three months after beginning to teach ASL (American Sign Language) to the child and incorporate it into daily family conversations (Garcia, 32-33). Yet, by the sixth month, babies are already capable of discriminating between their native language and other languages. As Makeba Parramore Wilbourn and Marianella Casasola put it in their 2006 article on the subject, contrary to previously held scientific beliefs about very young infants, “Infants possess remarkable perceptual abilities that are pivotal in the acquisition of language” (Wilbourn and Casasola, 153).
Furthering of Communicative Beliefs In Infant-ASL Communication:
Therefore, since infants gain most of their language perception abilities by the age of six months, not beginning at six months, it would make sense to begin incorporating sign language into the normal, daily speech that the infant has begun to perceive as soon as possible in order to provide for language acquisition as accurately and as efficiently as possible. By the time that their perception of their own native language has been built and before it begins to decline for unverified reasons at about twelve months old would seem to be the perfect time to have a second language intertwined in their daily speech recognition patterns (Werker and Tees, 157).
Sign is a proven aid in the acquisition of verbal language in that it serves as a sort of visual aid to learning spoken language, not a barrier or an alternative to spoken language, as some may incorrectly perceive it to be. By speaking while signing simultaneously to the child from the very beginning of communication events and keeping ASL in conversations consistently onward, American Sign Language and English are melted together into a perfect example of learnable, attainable speech patterns for infants versus being a complicated code that one must break, swimming in a sea of connation, context, and tonality that can pollute the meaning of words that the infants are attempting make a set definition for.
As one might surmise, in one study the results showed that children most mirrored their parent’s reproduction of the signs, whether correct or not, and also, whether or not they were introduced to other signers in their immediate environment. Obviously, a baby may not duplicate a word in sign exactly as the parent intended, but, in most cases, the intent of the signer can be understood by the signed-to. John Bonvillian and T. Siedlecki found in their study that there are differing points in the reproduction process and that, as a whole, it can be predicted how accurate the children’s signs are. They reported that:
The children were most like their parents in their production of the location aspect of signs. Altogether, the children produced the location aspect correctly in 83.5% of their signs. Moreover, virtually no change in the children’s accuracy of location production was found over the course of the study. Indeed, even the youngest children typically produced most of their signs in their correct locations. In contrast, the handshape aspect of signs constituted the area of greatest disagreement in sign formation between the children and their parents. In only 49.8% of the children’s signs was the handshape on the active hand the same as that of the parents’ sign models. The young children did, however, improve noticeably in the accuracy of their handshape formation with increasing age. (Bonvillian and Siedlecki, 53)
Advantage One – Strengthened Emotional Developments:
Using sign also tends to limit the parent’s vocabulary a bit, providing the child a better language footing. Pithy vocabularies with dramatic, sweeping sign gestures are much easier for babies to grasp than lengthy sentences (or even shortened sentences) alone. For example, instead of habitually saying to the child, a long, drawn out sentence (for example, “Alright, Baby Love, are you feeling a little hungry yet? Want a little food-y now? Or are you not really wanting milk right now? Here’s your bottle. Want to wait?”), the parent is naturally forced to take a step back and reevaluate their speech, in most cases limiting their exchanges to bite-size, one word sentences, such as the more simple to understand, “Eat?” (W. H. Lovett, IV, personal communication, March 28, 2008).
This creates an environment of better emotional development in that the baby learns sooner to communicate things other than just his or her basic needs and moves beyond to communicating emotional needs, therefore cultivating better grounds for emotional health later on in life. Besides the fact that using ASL minimizes frustration between the language gaps present in parent-child communication, communicating clearly to each other builds much-needed trust between the baby and parent, the child understanding the concept of language at a much earlier age and trusting the parent to provide its needs on a regular basis.
In addition, one must take into account the “gradient phenomena that are available to signers—rate and intensity and expansiveness of movement” (Slobin, 115). Those hearing parents who sign to their children are able to use verbal and nonverbal cues to illustrate their meaning to the child. For example, one might use the same tone in the common phrases of childhood “Want to eat?” or “Want to play?” but when the phrases are differentiated to the child using completely differing hand signals, then it is much easier for the child to grasp the meaning of the phrase than if the child was simply going off of tonality in the parent’s voice and the verbal word-shape.
The Process of Acquiring Language:
Studies point to the fact that up to ninety percent of the information that we learn is taken in visually, so babies can be reinforced in their language learning processes either by reading a parent’s lips or by observing a sign to take in language meaning (Garcia, 17). Some would go as far as to assert that “There is no doubt these gestures constitute an important early step in symbolic development and pave the way for learning verbal language,” (Goodwyn, Acredolo, and Brown, 83).
If, as this article proposes, this enhanced way of learning verbal language was used in routine speech events with infants as young as newborns, their early language acquisition would already contain these signs and their emotional well-being would be provided for much sooner. It would also help prepare parents for using the signs on a daily basis. For example, starting to use ASL with their baby sooner would give parents a safe testing ground to try their hand at signing before babies recorded every gesture as their dictionary quite as automatically, instead of parents attempting to begin speaking in this bilingual way all at once when their infant turned one of the ages that researchers suggest. That way, when the baby reaches the age of six months, the signs would already have become second nature to the parent instead of having a setting where both the child and the parent are learning the new language both at once. The parent has time to become the expert before teaching the child.
Advantage Two – Earlier Cognitive Developments:
At as early as nine to ten months of age, infant’s ears have become sophisticated enough to not only differentiate between their native language and other languages but to actually prefer the words that conform to their native language’s rules and phonological characteristics. Though they prefer their language’s set of sounds, and can distinguish between words of their language that sound similar, they fail to recognize a repetition of a word after there has been a pause or delay. As J. F. Werker and H. Yeung point out:
In addition to language-specific constraints on word forms, infants also encode phonetic detail (e.g. ‘tup’ is not confused with ‘cup’) and indexical detail (such as speaker identity and emotional affect). […] Although these results suggest that infants learn to give more weight to phonetic detail in word forms by 10–11 months, access is still fragile. Infants of this age treat mispronounced words like real words, although only when these mispronunciations are perceptually confusable. Infants listening to pseudowords like ‘didder’ treat them as real words like ‘dinner’ because they differ on unstressed syllables.
(Werker and Yeung, 522)
So, since infant’s “access is still fragile” in the case of words that sound similar because of unstressed syllables, the use of ASL could help set boundaries between those words, adding meaning through the sign as well as the spoken word and emotional and situational connotations.
Studies shown that, on average, children who learned sign as infants have an up to twenty percent higher full, verbal, and performance IQs (intelligence quotients) throughout testing sessions every three to six months until thirty-six months and then finally by the age of eight, when the final testing took place (Acredolo and Goodwyn, 4). Children will find a way to convey their needs, be it crying or otherwise, in addition to the fact that:
Results of a case study and cross-sectional and longitudinal studies have shown that infants between 10 and 20 mos. are so highly motivated to communicate that they often spontaneously recruit such ‘symbolic gestures’ as a way around the obstacle posed by the articulatory demands of verbal words.
(Acredolo and Goodwyn, 1)
In keeping with these findings, it is more constructive to channel children’s natural impulses to connect with others through the use of hand gesturing communication to teach them ASL, giving them a bilingual skill that can be utilized throughout their lives.
In addition, when a child has the capability to have a “joint attention episode” with their parent they have a higher and faster rate of language acquisition due to the positive association of the word and the perception of a shared experience with someone (Moore, Acredolo, and Goodwyn, 2). Therefore, putting their communication on the level with an adult’s, however temporarily or simply, raises the child to higher levels of cognizance. A test was performed with one hundred and three twenty-four-month-old infant participants. Some of the participants had been taught ASL, called the “ST Group” (designating that they had received “Sign Training”) and some were coded as “NI Groups” (or “Non-Interventioned,” those without sign training). Adapting Tomasello and Todd’s (1983, 1986) coding system for the test, the participants were graded using the EOWPVT (Expressive-One-Word-Picture-Vocabulary Test).
The results were conclusive that:
…infants who received high, infant-initiated joint attention scores exhibited more advanced expressive language abilities at 24 months. In addition, infants in the symbolic gesturing group initiated joint attention with their caregivers significantly more frequently than infants in the comparison groups and utilized significantly more complex strategies to this end.”
(Brie, Acredolo, and Goodwyn, 3)
It was shown that this was not simply a result of independent higher language scores related to parent interaction and learning opportunities on a daily basis, but directly correlated to the child’s sign training. Furthermore, they conclude that, “This pattern of results supports the hypothesis that the effect of symbolic gesturing on verbal development is, as predicted, mediated at least in part by increases in the infant’s effectiveness at initiating joint attention” (Brie, Acredolo, and Goodwyn, 3).
According to another study showing the advantages and proves that children acquire speech at an earlier rate, “Children who had not learned signing were just starting to identify objects with words, while the children in our study were already talking about those objects” (Garcia, 24-25).
Even Earlier Cognitive Developments:
Back to the goal of applying these studies to younger infants, it would logically line up with these findings to find it worthy of one’s time to apply these findings to babies as young as possible to begin the benefits of the conclusions the researches have uncovered. Before these studies, it was thought that infants were not capable of even the results that the researchers found, so, as it is apparent that younger infants try to communicate their needs from day one, it would be worthwhile to endeavor to give them ways to apply themselves to achievable heights of communication as soon as possible.
Infants are so eager to share the world with others once they discover their own inner power to do so. This video clip (shown here) illustrates this idea by showing an eighteen-month-old baby girl trying to instruct a six-month-old boy how to say and sign the word for “apple” and other simple words (Berg, Fireese teaches). The little girl’s zeal is evident. Instead of that communicative energy being channeled into crying out frustrations at not being able to communicate her meaning, the child is able to utilize it in clear communication and excited enough about this new method of communicating that she wants to share it with other infants.
Another interesting study might be to test siblings of sign-trained infants and discover whether or not they are more receptive to hand-signs than siblings of non-trained infants. This would also apply to the idea of beginning sign at the earliest age possible and not putting it off until eight-months of age. The six-month-old in the video certainly seems interested and open to what the eighteen-month-old has to say. If put in a formal testing situation, more than likely the same results would ensue.
Advantage Three – Signing Babies Verbally Speak Earlier Than Non-Signers:
At first glance, signing would not seem to be a variable in how fast that babies learn to speak verbally. Yet, studies have shown that babies who are fluent in ASL are apt to verbally speak faster and with clearer articulation than their non-signing counterparts, and with increased vocabularies for previous age-appropriate vocabulary studies. This would be because of the kinetic nature of signing and its ability to convey language in a more concise form.
Analysis has found that:
Infants as young as 8 months are able to link novel words to novel objects after only a few repetitions of the pairing, but require cross-modal synchrony between the presentation of the word and movement of the object. Learning associative links at 12 months still relies heavily on perceptual and social cues like visual salience and eye-gaze…
(Werker and Yeung, 522)
and ASL supports these findings by pairing the words to actions as objects that the eyes can detect and associate. Therefore, word definitions are better cemented in the mind rather than just the blind saying of the word, such as being able to say “bird” on command without really knowing what bird means. Additionally, ASL acts as a go between in the way that a game of charades goes between language barriers, acting-out what words mean and, therefore, making it easier to retain their meanings.
Also, in a study that was called both “definitive and revolutionary, Peter W. Jusczyk and his colleagues showed that infants’ discrimination performance for nonspeech tokens” (Gerken and Aslin, 7). Hence, infants are capable of not only discriminating between verbally spoken words, but are also capable of discriminating between non-verbally-spoken words such as signs. Having knowledge of ASL could be an advantage in that it gives a parent a way to speak silently with their child if they need to communicate with them without others knowing. For instance, when attending an upscale symphonic concert, without disrupting the other patrons with loud whispers over the music, a child could simply gesture to the parent that they are hungry, thirsty, or need a restroom.
About the use of phonetics and levels of phonetic discernment in younger infants: Jusczyk and Derrah (1987) used the HAS technique to determine whether 2-month-olds could recognize the similarity of C–V syllables that share an initial consonant (e.g., /b/). If infants could treat acoustically variable phonetic segments as members of the same category, then a phonemic level of analysis would be supported. The results suggested that infants at this age could not in fact extract the common initial consonant from multiple exemplars that had variable vowels. Further studies […] of newborns and 2-month-olds showed that neither vowels nor consonants are extracted as phonetic segments from multiple exemplars. These results added support to the hypothesis that the syllable, rather than the phonetic segment, is the basic unit of speech perception in early infancy.
(Gerkin and Aslin, 8)
Since younger infants have difficulty mastering the use of phonetics, it would be beneficial to research their capacity for understanding ASL, even as they are theoretically not physically capable of duplicating the signs with their own hands yet.
Dynamics Between Hearing and Non-Hearing Parent-Infants Relationships:
Hearing infants who are the children of deaf mothers verbally speak earlier than babies who are not signed to in early infancy. Regarding deaf parents of deaf infants, one study “found that deaf parents made extensive use of both touch and vision when communicating with young deaf infants, often moving their signing hands into the baby’s line of sight” (Harris, 177). The signing has a profound impact on children partly because of the intense kinesthetic learning qualities. It provides a learning experience for all modes of learning – auditory (if the child or parent is hearing and requires such a learning mode), visual, and kinesthetic. When these learning modes are addresses simultaneously, learning takes place more vividly.
The same study also showed distinct characteristics in the way that the experienced signers (the deaf mothers) signed to their children.[The] report [shows] that deaf mothers used a great deal of positive affect when they communicated with their children, considerably more than in a comparable sample of hearing-hearing dyads. Another aspect of maternal signing was highlighted by Kyle and Ackerman (1990), who note that deaf mothers signed slowly to provide greater opportunity for their signs to be seen. They also found that deaf mothers typically waited until their infants were looking at them before beginning to sign… . (Harris, 177)
Therefore, special care must be shown in how the signs are presented to children, just as if one were teaching any other new language. The location must be one without distraction, the timing of the signs must be right, and the difficulty of the hand-signs should be adjusted to the child’s ability level while still retaining the integrity of the original word. Importance also lies in being observant and having the sign skill to be able to comment about an object that a child is already looking at, lassoing their natural curiosity about the world around them, instead of simply directing their gazes as one sees fit (Harris, 178).
Advantage Four – Sign Clears Up Lexical Ambiguities:
Though this seems like an easy concept, the child’s perception of the world lies in the parent’s hands, whether the infant is hearing or non-hearing. As Dr. Joseph Garcia entertainingly puts it:
Imagine you are looking at a beautiful sunset and you hold your toddler Joey up to see it too. Then, you show him the sign that means sunset. But his focus is on something closer than yours. He sees a cow in the field between you and the sunset. The meaning you intended for that sign – sunset – is different from the meaning Joey gave it – cow. (Just think, Joey might go through life thinking that a cow is a sunset, and chances are he won’t make it though veterinary school.) (Garcia, 22)
In short, ASL clears up lexical ambiguities for infants as they are learning to speak English. Just as one example:
…the English word toast can be read as a slice of bread browned on both sides, a speech of good will, or a slang term meaning something has ended badly. The reader must understand the surrounding text to understand the word.” (Holaday, Gonzales, and Mills, 474)
In ASL, each meaning for the word “toast” has its own unique sign.
Advantage Five – Being Multilingual Increases Cognitive Skills:
Language is a powerful and transformative part of culture. Like culture, language is learned, is shared, and changes over time. It is much more than a set of words and grammar rules. It is a means of communication giving individuals and groups the ability to express values, attitudes, and beliefs. (Holaday, Gonzales, and Mills, 469)
And, since language is so powerful, by giving infants the power of language they become part of the communal culture and can reap its benefits more quickly. Additionally, when children learn sign language, they can utilize it in the future, becoming productive bilingual citizens. Being bilingual presents children with many rewards, both regarding cognitive development and emotional development.
Some would not immediately recognize ASL as a second-language to English. It is a recognized language with its own set of syntax, rules, and the like. It is interesting to note that in a testing situation, infants recognize ASL as being a language above that of non-linguistic pantomime. In a study of six and of ten-month-old babies, U.C. Krentz and P. Corina discovered that the infants repeatedly would direct their gazes significantly longer toward the person speaking ASL versus the person simultaneously performing a pantomime even though ASL involves more complex movements and multiple handshape types (Krentz and Corina, 3-4).
It has been shown that “children exposed to several languages early in life achieve higher levels of language competency later on” (Garcia, 24). The sooner the language is learned, the more skilled the communicator. In Japanese Sign Language (JSL) study, children of deaf parents who were bilingual in ASL were distinguished among the other participants of the study (those who had gradual hearing loss and also those who learned ASL in school) by their almost perfect scores on the language tasks assigned in the test (Sakai, Tasuno, Suzuki, Kumura, and Ichida, 1408). These results also show the universal benefits of teaching children to communicate in a defined language by using their hands.
Consequently, by imparting bilingual knowledge to children, one is not only temporarily relieving stressors from the toddler years as the child struggles to communicate, but also providing for future language skill achievements in early childhood and throughout adulthood. This provides all the more reason to being open to the idea of teaching even younger infants than waiting the recommended eight months.
Another reason to begin teaching children ASL before they are eight months old is the fact that:
By 6 months of age, Kuhl reports, infants in English-speaking homes already have different auditory maps (as shown by electrical measurements that identify which neurons respond to different sounds) from those in Swedish-speaking homes. Children are functionally deaf to sounds absent from their native tongue. The map is completed by the first birthday.” (Newsweek, 2).
In addition, “The perceptual map of the first language constrains the learning of a second,” therefore, learning of ASL should begin in tandem with the learning of English and not simply be introduced later (Newsweek, 2). It is more difficult to learn a second language after learning the first, rather than learning the second language with the first. This means that it will become even harder to add ASL, another language, to the child’s “map” after it is completed. Since the formulation of this “auditory map” is established by six months of age, this article asserts that so should the foundations of ASL training.
Conclusion – Breaking Language Barriers:
In conclusion, it is amazing how such tiny hands have the ability to shatter such strong language barriers that have existed between infants and adults for centuries. The recipients of the knowledge of how teaching ASL to babies from infancy onward can create history, giving the new generation of children enhanced speaking, literary, verbalization skills along with a superior expression power of their emotions and empathy skills. A good ten months over their non-signing peers and over infants educated in ways of the past, babies taught ASL in infancy have the advantage of having the world’s navigational system be something familiar to them, and a comfort throughout their childhood instead of a hindrance to higher learning. Instead of learning to say the alphabet in kindergarten, to spell the words “cat” or “dog” in first grade, and to understand the solfege in perhaps junior high music class when learning to sight read music, there will be an entire new generation of people who will not only be able to do these things, but be able to do them in a bilingual way with deeper understanding, as the little girl in this video exemplifies.
All of the external research about child development cited in this article supports the plausibility of this stimulating new concept, the simple truth of the research being that when ASL training is incorporated from the very beginning into daily speech exchanges with infants (and not just begun at the recommended six or eight months of age), infants can assimilate the language at an even more efficient rate, gaining the innate ability to give a name, a meaning, to their surroundings and to soak in the beauty of the vivid world around them.
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