Exposure to Language—Signed or Spoken—Supports Cognitive Development in Babies

Mom signing with her baby

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Key Takeaways

  • Deaf and hard of hearing children often face developmental delays.
  • New research confirms that early language exposure is key in cognitive development.
  • Sign language is equally as supportive as spoken language.

Imagine this: you're playing with your little one and all of the sudden, they start touching their thumb to their chin with their hand wide open. It's the milestone you are most excited about—your baby just signed "mama" for the first time!

Not only is this moment memorable, but early exposure to language is also very important to babies' development. That language, however, does not necessarily have to be spoken. A new study confirmed that deaf babies exposed to sign language from birth were not more likely to face cognitive delays than hearing babies.

Prior studies looked mostly at deaf children with hearing parents, who often end up with developmental delays. This new study shows that the issue is typically lack of language exposure, not being deaf itself. Sign language provides just as much support for cognitive development as spoken language.

"The young child’s brain is ready to learn language and does not discriminate on whether language should be spoken or signed," says Debra Trapani, director of the National Programs and Outreach, Early Intervention at the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center at Gallaudet University. "The window for language acquisition and development takes place in the first five years of life. If the deaf child is exposed only to spoken language and is not able to access or understand spoken language, the deaf child goes without language until [they have a language they can access]."

All About the Study

Researchers surveyed parents with deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing children aged 3 and 7. About a third of the deaf or hard of hearing children had a deaf parent who used ASL with them from birth. The remaining children were not exposed to language (signed or spoken) until they were toddlers.

Children who were exposed to language early on, whether spoken or signed, showed no impairment in executive functioning. Those who were not exposed to language until later on, however, did struggle more with executive functioning. Notably, children who exclusively signed from birth showed no difference when compared to those who learned spoken language from birth or those who were exposed to both spoken and signed language from birth. The deciding factor was whether the exposure happened early on.

The sample size was rather small (123) and not very racially diverse, with the vast majority of participants identifying as White. The findings demonstrate the validity of ASL as a home language. They also dispel the idea that deafness is directly associated with developmental delay. Instead, deafness may be seen as a potential barrier to language exposure that can be knocked down with the use of sign language.

What Is American Sign Language?

American Sign Language (ASL) is a visual language that uses hand signs, movement, and facial expressions to communicate. ASL is a language of its own, rather than a signed version of English. It has its own grammar and pronunciation rules and sentence structure conventions, and it can be used on its own to express complex thoughts and ideas.

"When signing about the past, the signer will produce signs directed behind them," explains Annalise Colton, MS, CCC-SLP, a speech-language pathologist with Expressable who has been passionate about and conversant in ASL from a young age. "Signs would be abstract without the grammatical role of facial expressions, head and body movements, as well as eye gaze. Hand shapes, location, and orientation of the palm also play a key role in communicating one’s thoughts." 

Debra Trapani, Gallaudet University

The young child’s brain is ready to learn language and does not discriminate on whether language should be spoken or signed.

— Debra Trapani, Gallaudet University

People in North America who are deaf or hard of hearing often use ASL to communicate. You don't have to be deaf to use ASL, however. ASL allows deaf and hard-of-hearing and hearing people easily communicate with one another. Additionally, ASL may be used as a tool to help children who have trouble with verbal communication, such as those with Down syndrome, and many parents use an abbreviated version of ASL to help their babies and not-yet-verbal toddlers express their needs before they can talk.

The Importance of Early Language Exposure

There are many benefits to exposing babies to language early on, be it spoken or signed. Children who are exposed to interactive language early on tend to have higher IQs, better social-emotional development, and improved self-regulation skills.

Babies reap the benefits of language exposure when it is interactive. This means caregivers should use language to communicate with babies in a way that lets them interact with the caregiver and with the environment. Examples include pointing out foods at the grocery store and narrating as a baby plays.

Why Deaf Babies Should Be Taught ASL

Using ASL with deaf babies allows them to reap the benefits of rich language exposure from birth. "Humans are social creatures and we connect by communicating with others," says Colton. "Deaf babies in America should be taught ASL, the same way a baby born in Germany speaks German."

Debra Trapani, Gallaudet University

The longer the brain waits for information, the more deprived the brain becomes of language and the ability to acquire language.

— Debra Trapani, Gallaudet University

If exposed only to spoken language, deaf and hard-of-hearing babies will focus on lip reading and facial expressions as communication. While helpful, this does not constitute a complete language like ASL does and it would not provide the opportunity for proper cognitive development. "The longer the brain waits for information, the more deprived the brain becomes of language and the ability to acquire language," says Trapani.

How Learning ASL Is Useful for Non-Deaf Babies

ASL is not just for deaf babies. It has many benefits for hearing babies, as well. Babies who learn multiple languages develop increased reasoning skills, better memory, and improved problem-solving skills. "Many preschools have seen the benefits of teaching sign language to their students," notes Colton.

Infants may be able to communicate via sign language before they can form words with speech. Teaching ASL to a hearing baby may help parents understand their baby's needs from an earlier age, as early as 6 months old. This may also be beneficial to babies who are nonverbal or less verbal due to developmental delays.

How to Expose Your Baby to Language

Language exposure matters, but you may wonder how you'll know if your baby is getting enough. The best thing you can do is make sure you are signing and/or talking, reading, and singing to your baby every day (all of which you can do in spoken or signed language). "If you don’t know what to say, narrate what you are doing," suggests Colton.

Incorporate language exposure into your baby's daily routine. Imitate your baby's facial expressions and/or sounds. Narrate what your baby is doing ("You are rolling the red ball!"). When reading to your baby, point to the pictures as you read, and cuddle them close. Sing/sign a bedtime lullaby or other songs throughout the day, such as when brushing your baby's teeth. If you are using spoken language, talking in a high, sing-songy "baby voice" with stretched out vowels can help your child learn sounds.

It is important to note that language exposure needs to be interactive for babies to learn from it. Screen-based media may be "language-rich," but babies learn from genuine interaction with real people.

Hearing parents are encouraged to learn ASL in their effort to expose their baby to language as early as possible. "The deaf community stands ready to join hands with the hearing parents and offer support in learning the language and culture of the community," emphasizes Trapani. "That can be through deaf mentor programs offered by some early intervention and early childhood programs. Hearing parents also can reach out to schools for the deaf or programs for the deaf and ask for connections into the deaf community."

What This Means for You

One of the best things you can do for your new baby is take the time to sign or talk, read, and sing to them daily. If your baby is deaf or hard of hearing, they benefit from all the same types of interaction in sign language. It's vital to immerse your child in language from birth. Parents can learn ASL to help create a language-rich environment for their deaf children.

10 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR and Scary Mommy, among others.