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Ages and Stages: The benefits of teaching children sign language from infancy

The benefits of children learning to speak another language are tenfold. They not only learn another way to communicate, but they also study a new culture. And once they learn one, the next is even easier to learn. For some school-age children, immersion learning is an option. But there is another language that many parents teach their babies before they even speak. 

Kat Forbis teaches American Sign Language (ASL) in the Upstate. She recommends ASL as a viable option to teach children from infancy.

“Children can learn ASL from the day they are born,” Forbis said. “Deaf babies ‘babble’ by wiggling their fingers and (they) mimic signs. Children are able to converse in sign language long before they can verbally produce language.”

Indeed, how many parents teach their children the quick signs for “more” or “milk” and then just stop? If they kept it up, children could very well have a second language under their belts before kindergarten.

ASL is in fact an identified language with its own rules for structure and application. 

“ASL is a full-fledged language,” Forbis said. “It has its own syntax and grammar. There are rules to it, dialects and region-specific signs. There are terms for using American Sign Language signs but in English word order, but it is not true ASL. ASL is used in the US and Canada. All signed languages are not the same. For instance, in ASL, the alphabet is all signed on a single hand whereas British Sign Language (BSL) uses two hands.”

In our era of social distancing, ASL might the perfect language to learn. You and your child can communicate without shouting across the room. And when we all get back to normal, you can communicate privately with no one knowing what you said.

Some resources to get you and your child started are Signing Time, Signing Savvy, Seeing Voices Montreal, Gallaudet, Deaf Culture That and Sign 2 Me. There are also apps that will help you with instruction. More importantly, Forbis recommends using our local resources.

“The South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind (SCSDB) is located in Spartanburg, and the malls in Greenville and Spartanburg both have Silent Dinners,” she said. “There are ASL days at local Starbucks where you can practice with native signers, those who are just learning it and all those in between.”

Many Upstate colleges also offer ASL classes.

When considering what kind of language to teach your child, stock up on flashcards to hang around the house. And perhaps give them a language they can