The importance of Sign Language in early years

Sign Language is not just used by the Deaf community, it can also be used by babies and their parents.

Dr Joseph Garcia ( originally worked on teaching Sign Language to apes, later realising that babies could be taught Sign too:

“Sign language has always existed and babies have always existed. I think it took someone in a cross-cultural situation to put the two together, in this case the Deaf culture and the Hearing culture resulted in Baby Sign Language. I was a Sign Language interpreter and educator, I did a lot of Deaf and Hearing education.”

Dr Garcia realised that Deaf families had an advantage over others, their babies learned to communicate earlier:

“I was at the centre of the signing world for many years seeing young babies raised with Deaf families signing and talking quite well…The hands can grab and touch things quite early in life so from about four months on, a baby has enough focus to watch and start absorbing language if someone is modelling.”

He insisted that parents must model signs rather than teaching them in a formal fashion:

“I don’t recommend teaching Sign Language to babies at all. Babies are too young to be taught anything, what you do is you include signs in your normal life and let the baby see that language is composed of not only sounds but visual cues that help guide understanding. All of my teaching materials talk about that. It’s not just Sign Language and babies but how that process is delivered to babies that is critical to the learning process making it a fun, gentle, loving experience versus a stressful experience where there are expectations and disappointments and all the things that can happen in a learning environment versus a living environment.

We don’t teach signs to babies, you model signs, you’re a model, there’s no other word I can think of. You’re modelling signs in your normal daily activities and allow your child to see them. There are various dimensions to language, not just sound and that gives your child a menu from which to choose from. The difference is knowing baby sign language and using it effectively. I’ve worked with 5,000 families in my lifetime for 30 years and I know exactly now the best possible way to get the most effective use out of a wonderful, wonderful system of communication.”

Dr Garcia described the various learning processes he had observed:

“Four months is when they can focus and understand that language is starting. They can start to associate a sign or gesture to an action, activity or event. It’ll take 60-90 days for them to solidify that association, the learning process takes time, you don’t say a word to a child then wait an hour for them to say it back to you, it takes years for them to sit, listen and observe. Their muscles maturate, they start to form their first words in their first year of garbled speech. You’re going to have the same process with signs except it occurs much earlier, about a year earlier in the child’s life than waiting for speech… The baby associates those gestures, pretty soon when that baby starts seeing those gestures, they know what’s about to happen: they’re going to get nursed, they’re going to be changed, they’re going to go outside, whatever it may be and, eventually they’re going to attempt to mimic the motions of the caregiver as a result, when they make that attempt and they’re rewarded by the thing they’re trying to get, that reinforces it and it spurs more experimentation with more signs. Milk is the most common one they learn and at first they’ll use that sign for everything, which is why I show parents how to provide enough vocabulary for the basic needs of the child that the child’s going to want to communicate about. Their dexterity gets to the point where they can form the signs and make the signs which is anywhere between six and ten months old. I’ve never seen a baby produce signs earlier than six months on a regular basis.”

He emphasised how much variety children displayed:

“Every child’s different, they don’t all start at the same time, that isn’t reality. You don’t learn at the same rate that I learn, no one learns the same way. And, even if we did, we don’t always express that knowledge in the same way or the same rate either. We have some babies who will sit and observe and learn and learn and learn and not sign a thing. Then, all of a sudden at one years old the stuff just pours out of them. Other kids will learn a sign, make a sign, learn another sign make three or four signs, every child is different.”

Dr Garcia has had to educate parents who have misconceptions about Sign’s effect on speech development:

“It does not slow down your speech. Signing babies generally have better language capacity or language authority than babies who don’t sign, because even though signing is physical, it’s still a language. Whether it’s manual or verbal is secondary to the point that you’re learning to communicate your thoughts and ideas, learning to transmit your intentions to someone else and theirs to you.”

He also has to teach parents not to be embarrassed to use Sign:

A parent said to me one time ‘I only use signs at home not out in public because I don’t want people to think there’s something wrong with her.’ I asked the mother ‘what’s more important to you, the relationship you have with your baby or what other people might think of you and your baby?”

Finally, Dr Garcia had this to say about the potential Sign had to broaden a child’s worldview:

“The difference between using signs and not using signs is the difference between a child riding the rollercoaster of life or navigating life.”


Edmund West is an autistic freelance journalist who has been writing articles since 2007. He also works with Autistic adults and has an MA in history. He has written for several magazines: Press Gazette, Wired, Military History Monthly, History Today, etc.