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Early exposure to sign language: An advantage to parents and children

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Introduction – the importance of language

The development of language is essential for the cognitive and social development of all children, including, of course, those children who are deaf. Expressive language ability in any modality plays a major role in the development of spoken language (Yoshinaga-Itano, in press). However, the ways in which language, cognitive and other aspects of development can best be stimulated and enhanced, and which language or languages should be learnt, are topics for on-going debate in the field of education of deaf children.

Some educators and other professionals who work with deaf children believe that the simultaneous acquisition of a signed and spoken language is confusing for an infant. Others in the field hold the view that not only is simultaneous language acquisition not confusing, the process of learning two languages at the same time is beneficial for the process of acquiring both.

This paper sets out to review research on language acquisition with particular focus on simultaneous acquisition of signed and spoken languages. The aim is to highlight the benefits of early exposure to sign language and the important role that sign language can play in the acquisition of English.

Language acquisition versus language learning

Infants are born with the potential to learn any human language. Which language or languages they actually learn depends on which languages they have access to (Woll, 1998). The first six months of life represents a particularly sensitive period in early language development, as the child progresses from babbling to syllabic combinations. In subsequent months, the parents and other caregivers begin to perceive the child’s utterances as intentional and respond to them, which sets the groundwork for interaction and further language development.

Acquisition in the circumstances described above, happens without conscious effort on the part of the learner; learning requires study (Fischer, 1998, original emphasis). Children are very adept at language acquisition; adults who have acquired a first language then usually become very good at learning other languages. The opposite, however, is not always true. Fischer (1998) believes that young deaf children have often been forced to learn when they might more easily acquire. This situation comes about due to a choice having been made between which type of communication to use: signed or spoken.

I suggest that a choice does not need to be made, children can (and should, I believe) be exposed to both signed and spoken languages from the time a hearing loss is discovered. Petitto and Holowka (2002) believe that we are in fact “compelled” to provide young children with the earliest possible bilingual language exposure, not only because of the multi-linguistic and multi-cultural world in which we now live, but also because research shows that the critical window for language learning (traditionally identified as being from birth to five years of age) is the most optimal period to do so, whether the languages concerned are two spoken ones or a spoken and signed language.

Evidence in support of early exposure to sign language

Research has indicated that “manual babbling” can be observed in infants exposed to sign languages (Woll, 1998). Petitto and Marentette (1991) found that parents who used sign language with their children responded to this manual babbling as if it were intentional communication from the baby. “Manual babbling thus provides a motivation for both infant and parent to engage in conversation in the same way as vocal babbling does” (Petitto & Marentette, cited in Woll, 1998).

The language milestones observed in children acquiring a spoken language have also been observed in monolingual deaf babies acquiring signed languages (Petitto & Holowka, 2002). Woll (1998) reports that while these milestones in British Sign Language (BSL) have been based on research with children of deaf parents who were exposed to BSL from infancy, preliminary research evidence from deaf children in hearing families who have had access to fluent signers from any early age (via language role models in bilingual education programs) indicate that the development of their BSL skills appears to be identical to that of deaf children of deaf parents.

Swanwick (2001) reported on a small number of case studies which have explored sign bilingual language development, with particular emphasis on the effect of early sign language acquisition on the development of spoken language. She found that “these studies have demonstrated that early sign language acquisition does not prevent deaf children from learning vocal language, but can support this process” (p. 65). Importantly, use of sign language from an early age does not inhibit the motivation and interest in the learning of speech (Caselli, 1987; Maxwell, 1989, cited in Swanwick, 2001).

Petitto, Karterelos, Levi, Gauna, Tatrault and Ferraro (2001) studied six bilingual children and discovered a great deal about language milestones. They found that both a baby girl acquiring spoken French and English simultaneously and a baby boy, who was acquiring spoken French and Quebec Sign Language (Langue de Signes Quebecoise – LSQ), achieved classic linguistic milestones and exhibited patterns of lexical growth that were consistent with monolingual norms.

Petitto and Holowka (2002) concluded that the young bilinguals they studied were not delayed in the achievement of early language milestones in either of their respective native languages.”The babies achieved the classic language milestones in each of their languages on a similar time course relative to their other language and, crucially, on a similar time course relative to the established norms for monolingual children… Dramatic delays or asynchronies in the timing of the bilingual children’s achievement of the linguistic milestones across either the spoken or signed modalities were not observed; interestingly, there was no bias or preference for speech in these hearing babies, as both languages (LSQ and French) in both modalities (signed and spoken, respectively) were learned equally” (p. 10).

Meadow (2005) reported on a study from 1966 which concluded that, “There … appears to be no statistical support for the currently popular opinion that manual communication is detrimental to or incompatible with the development of speech or lip reading” (p. 327). She concludes her argument by stating that “… some evidence was reported to the effect that children who are most likely to be judged as having good communicative skills are those who were exposed to both oral and manual training at an early age” (p. 328).

Yoshinaga-Itano (in press) undertook case studies of the spoken language development of a number of profoundly deaf children. Of the total number studied, three of the children had substantial sign vocabulary before implantation. All three wore amplification, but had no documented speech perception or speech discrimination skills prior to cochlear implantation. She found that these three children appeared to fast map their speech production onto their sign vocabulary after cochlear implantation. For these children, chronological-age-appropriate or near-age-appropriate spoken vocabulary was acquired within 12-14 months post-implant. Yoshinaga-Itano believes that this development appears to be evidence of an oral phonology piggy-back onto the lexical sign language foundation. That is, these three children discovered that the sounds they were hearing with the cochlear implant were another code for the sign vocabulary that they used to communicate. Following this discovery, a rapid mapping of the sounds of English onto the sign vocabulary appears to have happened.

Models of deafness

Given the evidence outlined in regard to the benefits of early sign exposure and use, I wish to examine briefly how the practice of “making a choice” in regards to communication method has evolved when looking at communication with young deaf children and outline why I believe the practice of “choosing” does not serve deaf children well, because of the values and beliefs which underlie the practice.

We are all familiar with the statistics which state that the overwhelming majority of deaf children are born to parents who can hear (usually a figure of 90% is quoted). Hearing parents who have a deaf child are generally informed very early on that they need to make a choice about the way in which they will communicate with and educate their children: either with or without the use of signs. The birth of their deaf child may be the parents’ first encounter with hearing loss, which is confronting and confusing. Many parents find it difficult to accept Deaf people’s view of themselves as “normal, just not able to hear” (Power, 2005, p. 452). Parents in this situation experience shock, denial, grief and distress at the discovery of their infant’s loss and are “very susceptible” (Power, 2005) to the attractions of cochlear implant programs and the promise of “normalisation”, the basis of which is a medical view of deafness as something to be “cured” or an illness to be eradicated.

Owing to the way in which many early diagnosis and intervention programs in Australia operate, parents are rarely given the opportunity to explore the socio-cultural view of deafness. The socio-cultural model contrasts with the medical model. Proponents of the socio-cultural perspective of deafness point to the fact that members of the Deaf community lead “normal” family, social, and work lives, communicating via sign language, writing, and (in many cases) speech, and are able to interact in both the Deaf and hearing communities (Power, 2005). The socio-cultural perspective recognises that a deaf child or deaf person is normal in their own terms (not in comparison to hearing children) and will develop characteristically as a deaf person, with their own strengths, weaknesses and talents (Young & Tattersall, 2007).

For some children the promise of the implant is achieved, which is a wonderful outcome. Critics argue that the cochlear implant and the subsequent therapy often become the focus of the child’s identity, at the expense of the development of a deaf identity, exposure to information about the deaf community and ease of communication in sign language. Measuring the child’s success by their success in hearing and speech will lead to a poor self-image as “disabled” (because the implants do not produce normal hearing) rather than having the healthy self-concept of a proud deaf person (Hyde & Power, cited in Power, 2005).

What then happens for these children, who may be well beyond the “critical period” for acquiring language? If all deaf children are given the opportunity to acquire sign language from an early age, they will be in a better position to learn another language from the base of a solid first language. Even for a child for whom a cochlear implant is a success, he or she will still be a deaf child when in the swimming pool or in the bath tub, or any other situation when the cochlear implant is not in place and where communication is necessary. He or she will still be a deaf child while awaiting surgery and prior to the implant being switched on (a period which can vary from 5 – 17 months). Access to sign language means access to language and communication in all situations. Viewing deafness from a socio-cultural perspective values deaf people as a vital part of our multi-cultural society (not as inferior hearing people) and sees hearing loss as a normal part of the human condition, not an abomination.


No-one would dispute the statement that if the deaf child is to communicate effectively with the hearing world, he/she must acquire facility in speech, speech reading and writing. Meadow (2005) also notes that if the child is to communicate effectively within the Deaf community, he/she must acquire both receptive and expressive facility in fingerspelling and sign language. In addition, the child should feel comfortable about his/her identity as a deaf person and about his/her own communicative skills and be willing to use these skills to communicate with any person, either deaf or hearing.

Good early communication for deaf children, no matter what modality is used, should capitalise on deaf children’s talent for acquisition by providing a rich environment from which they can internalise the language naturally. Deaf children have a right to all worlds, not just deaf, not just hearing.


  • Hyde, M. & Power, D. (2006). Some ethical dimensions of cochlear implantation for deaf children and their families. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. 11(1), 102-111.
  • Fischer, S.D. (1998). Critical periods for language acquisition: consequences for deaf education. In A. Weisel (Ed.). Issues unresolved: New perspectives on language and deaf education. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.
  • Meadow, K.P. (2005). Early manual communication in relation to the deaf child’s intellectual, social and communicative functioning. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. 10(4), 321-329.
  • Petitto, L.A. and Holowka, S. (2002). Evaluating attributions of delay and confusion in young bilinguals: Special insights from infants acquiring a signed and spoken language. Sign Language Studies, 3(1), 4-34.
  • Petitto, L.A., Katerelos, M., Levi, B., Gauna, K., Tetrault, K, & Ferraro, V. (2001). Bilingual signed and spoken acquisition from birth: Implications for the mechanisms underlying early bilingual language acquisition. Journal of Child Language, 28(2), 1-44.
  • Power, D. (2005). Models of deafness: Cochlear implants in the Australian daily press. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. 10(4), 451-459.
  • Swanwick, R. (2001). The demands of a sign bilingual context for teachers and learners: An observation of language use and learning experiences. Deafness and Education International, 3(2), 62-79.
  • Woll, B. (1998). Development of signed and spoken languages. In Gregory, S., Knight, P. McCracken, W., Powers, S. & Watson, L. (Eds.). Issues in deaf education. London: David Fulton Publishers.
  • Young, A., & Tattersall, H. (2007). Universal newborn hearing screening and early identification of deafness: Parents’ responses to knowing early and their expectations of child communication development. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 12(2), 209-220.

About Dr Maree Madden
Maree works in Brisbane, Queensland as an interpreter and interpreter trainer. She originally trained as a teacher of deaf students, and has taught in primary, secondary and tertiary settings. Maree was principal of the Thomas Pattison School at the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children from 2002-2005. Her particular interests are: sign bilingual education for deaf students, language acquisition of deaf students, Auslan to English interpreting skills and Auslan storytelling. She is a published author and reviewer for the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. Read more about Dr Madden…




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