Bilingual is Better
Photo by gfpeck

Photo by gfpeck

Yesterday Roxana kicked off the week with an introduction to a four-part series we’ve prepared on baby sign language, or ASL, as a bridge connecting two languages.  Teaching sign language to your baby is the equivalent of teaching him an additional language.  For your child to fully be able to communicate in ASL it requires a strong commitment and dedication from the parents, like learning any second or more language does.  However, and especially for families using the one parent-one language method,  learning the basics of ASL to use as common ground between all in the family is very helpful.

Simona Montanari, Ph. D.

Today’s Ask an Expert question is specifically about this topic.  Simona Montanari, Ph. D. tells us in more detail, and from an expert’s point of view, why using ASL is beneficial for OPOL families. The question was sent by Jason, a high school Spanish teacher using the OPOL method to raise a bilingual son.

Is Baby Sign Language Helpful to Second Language Acquisition?

I am a high school Spanish teacher who is trying to do the one parent-one language method with my six month old son. I was wondering if baby sign language would hinder, help, or otherwise, Spanish language acquisition?


Dear Jason,

You can rest assured: teaching your child baby sign language will not hinder his Spanish-English bilingual development. In fact, it might help it.

First of all, baby sign language is not like regular sign language in that it is incomplete. You are not signing to your child in full sentences, but you are only teaching him basic words that he may need to communicate, such as “hungry”, “thirsty”, “more”, “please”, and “thank you.” These signs are from the American Sign Language dictionary but they have no morphology attached to it – no affixes or inflections as found in ASL – so they are simple enough for a child to imitate. In addition, hand gestures are much easier for a baby to pick up than spoken words, which require precise tongue and lip movements, so children can use baby signs to convey their needs to their parents before they have words.

This is where the benefits of baby sign language are the most obvious: signing can help children alleviate the frustration of the inability to communicate, and can boost babies’ feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment. There is no evidence to suggest that babies who are taught to sign are in any way hindered in language development. It is actually believed, as noted by Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn, authors of Baby Signs: How to Talk to Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk, that children who are taught to sign learn to speak sooner than those who are not, and, because they have more experience with language (sign and spoken), they end up with a better grasp of language and better communication skills that those of non-signing children. In sum, baby sign language will help bi/multlingualism, in addition to stimulating intellectual development and providing a strong foundation for early literacy.

So you can go ahead and keep using signs, Spanish, and English with your baby. If you are consistent, your child will initially use only signs to tell you what he wants; as time goes on, he will learn words and will use both words and signs together. Finally, he will gradually drop signs and use only words. Of course if you are teaching your child ASL and not just single signs, then your baby will go on to learn ASL and will be trilingual in Spanish-English and ASL.

Don’t forget we’re giving away two copies of Monta Briant’s book, Baby Sign Language Basics. Go here for more info on how you can be one of the winners!

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