Early Sign Language Acquisition Helps Deaf Children Learn Spoken and Written Languages

Washington, DC [February 21, 2011] – “To sign or not to sign” is a question that has long been a source of disagreement among medical and educational professionals who work with very young deaf and hard of hearing children.

While some hold that teaching a deaf child to communicate in sign language before he/she learns to read lips or is provided with a cochlear implant (or some other assistive hearing device) significantly decreases his/her ability to acquire spoken or written language, research conducted at Gallaudet University shows the opposite to be true.

A recent Research Brief published by Gallaudet’s Visual Language and Visual Learning Center (VL2) and authored by Sharon Baker, states that early sign language acquisition by deaf and hard of hearing children actually helps them learn spoken and written language later on.

 “Sign language is sometimes withheld from deaf children in the belief that it interferes with speech development,” Baker writes. “However, there is no evidence [that proves this].”

What is fact is that a child’s early language experiences provide him/her with a lifetime ability to learn. The key is for the child to develop fluency in a first language as early as possible in his/her life.

Encouraging deaf children to communicate in sign language at a very early age will not impede their ability to learn English or any other spoken language. Indeed, VL2 researchers are trying to understand exactly why and how so many deaf and hard of hearing students whose first language is ASL achieve such high levels of English literacy.

Gallaudet’s VL2 is a Science of Learning Center (SLC) on Visual Language and Visual Learning, one of six SLCs funded by the National Science Foundation. The purpose of VL2 is to gain a greater understanding of the biological, cognitive, linguistic, sociocultural, and pedagogical conditions that influence the acquisition of language and knowledge through the visual modality.

Gallaudet University, federally chartered in 1864, is a bilingual, diverse, multicultural institution of higher education that ensures the intellectual and professional advancement of deaf and hard of hearing individuals through American Sign Language and English. Gallaudet maintains a proud tradition of research and scholarly activity and prepares its graduates for career opportunities in a highly competitive, technological, and rapidly changing world.

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