How Sign Language Works

Baby Sign Language

A baby signing
A baby signing
Image courtesy Benjamin Earwicker/Stock.xchng

While sign language is primarily used as a means of communication with and between people who are hard of hearing or deaf, there are other uses as well. Recently, parents and teachers have used sign language as a tool to teach language skills to young, pre-verbal children. Some parents even begin teaching sign language while their children are still babies.

According to the Web site Signing With Your Baby, parents can start teaching sign language to their children when they are six months old, though it may take months before the child makes her first sign. Most children can handle a dozen or more vocabulary words at first. As the child learns the significance of signs, she will often want to learn signs for everything around her. Many parents note that at some point their child's desire to be taught more signs increases dramatically.

Many parents focus on teaching signs that are need-based. Their philosophy is that the child learns quickly how to communicate specific needs, reducing frustration both for the child and the parents. Common need-based signs include "more," "eat" or "drink." Parents may also teach their children signs based on what the child finds interesting. If a baby seems captivated by a teddy bear, for example, you could teach the child the sign for bear. Two obvious signs that fall in this category are "mommy" and "daddy."

Some people are worried that teaching sign language to babies interferes with their ability to learn speech. Experts such as Dr. Susan W. Goodwyn of California State University and Dr. Linda P. Acredolo of the University of California have performed extensive studies to determine the effect of teaching sign language in regards to speech development. They found that children who learned sign language developed more advanced language skills and engaged in more complex social interactions than children who learned to communicate through speech alone. Experts recommend that parents speak to their children while signing so that the child understands that both the sign and the spoken words represent the same concept.

To learn more about sign language and other topics, follow the links below.

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More Great Links


  • ASL University
  • Deaf Resource Library
  • ESL Literacy for a Linguistic Minority: The Deaf Experience op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=49
  • Goodwyn, Susan W., Ph.D., et al. "Impact of Symbolic Gesturing on Early Language Development." Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. Summer 2000, 24, 2. Pg 81.
  • History of Sign Language
  • Signing Online
  • Signing With Your Baby
  • The Listen-Up Web