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How do children learn sign languages?

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Researchers in Australia and overseas have looked at how deaf and hearing children learn sign languages, such as Auslan, American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL). This research shows that deaf and hearing children will learn sign language naturally if their parents and other people around them use the language. They will learn sign language in the same way as other children learn spoken languages like English 1.

Research on children learning sign language began in the 1970’s in the USA. Researchers wanted to know if there was something special about learning sign languages, and if learning sign languages is different from learning spoken languages. For example, many signs in Auslan and other sign languages are iconic. This means that the sign looks like the sign’s meaning in some way. For example, in the sign HOUSE, the hands trace the shape of a roof and walls. In the sign TOWEL, you show the action of rubbing your back with a towel. In the sign BIRD, your hand imitates the shape of a bird’s beak opening and closing. This is very different from spoken languages, where the sounds of most words have no link to their meaning. Researchers wondered if iconic signs made learning sign languages easier for children than learning spoken languages.

From the age of approximately six months, children learning sign language begin to “babble” on their hands, making sign-like actions in imitation of the signed language they see around them.The research shows that sign languages are probably not easier for children to learn. For deaf and hearing children with signing parents, learning sign language begins at birth and continues through childhood. Children who learn spoken languages from speaking parents and children who learn sign languages from signing parents seem to move through all of the same stages of language development.

From the age of approximately six months, children learning sign language begin to “babble” on their hands, making sign-like actions in imitation of the signed language they see around them. They produce their first sign at around their first birthday, at the same age as children learning spoken languages produce their first word. Although some researchers claimed that the first signs appeared earlier than the first words, more recent research suggests that this finding was incorrect, and that there is no difference in the timing of the first sign or the first word.

This one sign stage (like the one word stage in speaking children) continues for some time, as the children add more and more new signs to their vocabulary. Signing children produce signs like FATHER, MOTHER, DOG, BATH, HOT, EAT, and GOODBYE, as is also typical of young speaking children. They also make the same kinds of errors in production. They produce signs with incorrect handshapes or movements in the same way that speaking children are unable at first to pronounce all the sounds used in English words.

Just before they are two years of age, they begin to combine their signs in two sign combinations, such as WANT MILK or FIND BALL. The child’s vocabulary begins to grow more rapidly, and by two and half years of age, sentences suddenly become much longer, and the child begins to acquire more complex grammar. They learn how to negate sentences with headshakes and signs like NOT and NOTHING. They begin to form questions, and make use of space in their signing. By age five, most of the basic grammar of the languages is learned, although it takes a few more years before all aspects of the language are learned completely. Learning new vocabulary, however, continues throughout life.

Hearing children from deaf families (i.e., hearing CODAs) who learn both signed and spoken languages (for example, in cases where one parent signs and another speaks) move through the same stages, and show no preference for spoken language in their early years, even though they can hear. This shows that, for young children, language is language, regardless of whether it is spoken or signed.

Notes and further reading

  1. Emmorey, K. (2002). Language, cognition and the brain: Insights from sign language research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


Article written by Dr Adam Schembri
Dr Schembri is one of Australia’s best known sign language linguists. This article was written for Deaf Australia (formerly AAD) and first published in AAD Outlook, Vol. 14, Issue 4, May 2005.

Information provided by Deaf Australia Inc. Reproduced with permission.

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Last updated: 9th Apr, 2024




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