If you’re a parent, caregiver, or educator, you’ve probably heard about the importance of language skills for a child’s development. Language supports a child’s ability to understand and communicate their experiences. Language development also affects a child’s social and emotional skills—two things they will need for the rest of their lives to interact with other people.
So, how do deaf children fit into this experience? How does language develop if you can’t hear spoken words, or only partially hear them? Read on to learn why signed language is so important for deaf and hard-of-hearing children (DHH).
A Challenge for Parents and Caregivers of Deaf Children
For babies and young children with hearing loss, a delay in early language development is a big concern. Without a dynamic experience of language in infancy and early childhood, deaf children can be at risk for many challenges later on. Language deprivation comes from a lack of interacting with language in the way their hearing counterparts do.
Although families may try to remedy the issue through the use of devices like cochlear implants or hearing aids, studies show that teaching a signed language—such as American Sign Language (ASL)—has a far greater benefit than using devices alone (Murray 2020).
According to Dr. Joseph Murray in this article from The Hearing Journal, “Evidence suggests that relying solely on spoken language acquisition via hearing loss technology increases the risk of deaf children experiencing poor language acquisition and the associated developmental consequences” (2020).
The challenge is that many parents and caregivers are caught unaware when their child is identified as deaf or hard of hearing—the family may not know ASL and may feel intimidated to learn. Studies show that 95% of deaf children are born to hearing parents (Caselli, Pyers, and Lieberman 2021).
Additionally, parents and caregivers may be confused by conflicting information about sign language. Some parents may have been told that signing was not a good option for their deaf or hard-of-hearing child. The idea behind this is that teaching a signed language will “interfere” with spoken language development (this is not true, and we’ll dig into why in a moment).
Another misconception is that children with cochlear implants or hearing aids can easily acquire spoken language. Kimberly Sanzo, the founder of Language First, debunked this claim in my interview with her—Ms. Sanzo stated the importance of intervening with signed language at a young age, even for children who use hearing supports (2022).
The Role of Sign Language
In that same video interview with Kimberly Sanzo, we spoke a bit about the role of signed language for deaf and hard-of-hearing children. Even if a child uses a hearing device, Ms. Sanzo stressed that these children should be learning sign language in addition to using their hearing device. Sign language gives growing young brains access to language.
Why is this important? For a typically developing hearing infant, language is learned through constant exposure to sounds and voices. For a child using a support, their exposure is paused any time the child’s device is off.
This may not seem like a big deal, but for a child, it is critical. Ms. Sanzo said, “For deaf or hard-of-hearing kids…every time their implant or hearing aid is off, or broken, or the batteries aren’t working, or it has to be recharged, or they’re swimming…all of those times, they’re missing out on bits of language here and there” (Marcath 2022).
This, she goes on, adds up—to the point where that child does not have a solid foundation in a first language. This is called language deprivation. Teaching sign language bridges the gap—at the times these children don’t have access to spoken language, they are still able to communicate and receive this important language input through signing.
Of course, for some children who do not have any hearing ability, signed language needs to be their primary means of communicating. Deaf children may still receive some auditory input—it may be tempting to think that partially hearing kids only need to use verbal language. Regardless of the child’s level of hearing loss, it’s important that parents, caregivers, and educators offer sign language to every child considered deaf or hard of hearing.
The Benefits of Sign Language for Deaf Children
These days, many parents teach ASL to their hearing infants—so even hearing families have seen the benefits sign language can have for their developing youngsters! The bottom line is: ASL is essential, regardless of a child’s hearing ability.
Why is sign language so important?
“Language acquisition is vitally important to the development of every child. Lack of language, or language deprivation, can have devastating effects on a child's development.” —Kimberly Sanzo
Communication is a basic human need. Building a strong and lasting relationship with your child is worth the time and effort to connect through language. Sign language requires face-to-face communication. Imagine how powerful a message you send your deaf or hard-of-hearing child when you pay full attention to them in their communication looking at them during your delivery.
Belonging is another basic human need. Communicating with and understanding your deaf or hard-of-hearing child sends a powerful message that they are important members of the family. Embrace the opportunity to learn with your child, and be amazed at the joy you discover in the seemingly magical power and beauty of sign language. Offer your child as many of those opportunities as you can!
When infants and toddlers communicate with a signed language before the spoken language systems have developed, there is less frustration—for both the children and the caregivers! Many parents rave about the joy of teaching “baby signs”.
Language builds language, whether spoken or signed—which feeds the language systems of the brain (Marcath 2022). A common misconception is that teaching a deaf child ASL will make them less able to process spoken language. However, exposing children to signing builds cognitive skills and can increase vocabulary by 15% to 20%. This study states, “All languages, including sign languages like American Sign Language (ASL), can equally support healthy child development” (Caselli, Pyers, and Lieberman 2021). Sign language will build—not degrade—a child’s language abilities (if they have them).
Learning sign language activates regions of the brain for spatial memory, visual perception, mental development, logical nonverbal reasoning, and visual-spatial comprehension. The brain is a faciating organ with capabilities beyond our knowledge, as revealed in our blog, “Brains Are Better with Sign Language.”
“Research affirms that by enhancing the brain with visual language, users outperform nonusers of ASL“ from “The Language Systems of the Brain- Sign Language and Cochlear Implants.”
Evidence shows that early visual language development (signing) can facilitate spoken language development later on (Nussbaum, Waddy-Smith, and Doyle 2012). Please note that this may not apply to all deaf children—some may continue to communicate nonverbally if that’s what works best for them. Some children may not have the ability to voice their words.
Learning a signed language such as ASL as a first language may set deaf children up for success in reaching their developmental milestones.
In turn, reaching those developmental milestones will help these children on their path to literacy and academic achievement.
How Can You Support Your Deaf Child’s Language Development?
Put your child “in an environment where there are fluent native signers”—this is the advice Kimberly Sanzo gave. This may vary depending on your child’s age and developmental stage.
You may want to find an infant daycare where the staff includes fluent signers or members of the Deaf community.
Seek out Deaf mentors, babysitters, or others in your community who can work with your family. Language First’s Resources page includes links to find a Deaf mentor (among many other helpful resources).
I recently published an article about finding a summer camp for your Deaf child. Some camps are geared toward the whole family, which may be helpful for parents who want to learn with their young kids. Certain camp programs may help you meet Deaf mentors, introduce your family to ASL, or provide full ASL immersion experiences.
If your child has missed developmental milestones, look into early intervention resources in your area. According to the National Association for the Deaf, early intervention systems should be able to assist with ASL instruction for children who qualify.
Check your intentions and attitude—if you as a parent are resistant to learning ASL, remember that this is the language that will be most accessible to your child. Even the best devices cannot “make” your child a hearing child if they are deaf or hard of hearing. Try your best to accept your child’s situation—even if it is challenging.
At the same time, don’t feel pressured as a parent to become fluent in ASL yourself—just learn as much as you can for your child. Any steps a parent can take toward accommodating a child are positive! This YouTube playlist of common ASL phrases may be a good place to start.
If your child uses an implant or hearing aid, ensure that it is fitted properly and in good working order. This way, your child can get the most out of the auditory input that they can receive
Check out my Resources page—I have listed many links for learning about ASL and the Deaf community. I’ve listed a few classes I recommend to help caregivers of infants and young kids get started with ASL. Hands & Voices is another great resource for support in making the best choices for your family.
Look for stories and media that include Deaf people. Showing your young deaf child a positive representation of themself can be very empowering. I have a list of recommended picture books to get you started.
I also wrote my own picture book called My Monster Truck Goes Everywhere with Me. This book teaches 32 ASL signs, and when you purchase a book, you get access to videos that show you how to produce each sign.
In this article, I’ve referenced my interview with Kimberly Sanzo of Language First several times. Her organization is a great resource for parents, professionals, and schools to learn about ASL. Learn more about Language First here!
Connect with others in the Deaf community. You may be able to do this locally and/or online. Often, Facebook groups and other online forums can be a good place to connect with other parents of d/Deaf children and pick up new ideas and resources.
I hope this has helped you understand the importance of sign language for children with hearing loss! Together, we can work against misconceptions and give the next generation of d/Deaf children the accommodations they need. Communication and connection can make all the difference.
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