When Should Deaf Babies Learn Sign Language?

By Jean F. Andrews

DeafInPrison.com / Google Images
DeafInPrison.com / Google Images

Deaf babies should learn sign language just as soon as their hearing loss is diagnosed, at birth, 3 months, 6 months or before the age of two.  Recent research in Neuroscience and Psycholinguistics has shown that when a baby’s brain is exposed to two languages between the ages of 6 and 12 months there are perceptual and neural processing changes that occur in their brains that provide language learning advantages. As such, this dual language stimulation paves the way for the child to acquire both languages.  If the baby is exposed to two languages their sensitive period window stays open longer to facilitate the learning of the two languages. In other words, neural pathways are laid down for both auditory and visual languages and the baby has an easier time learning the languages.

Some medical and audiological professionals are advising parents to not sign with their baby until they fail with monolingual oral/aural approaches, or until they get older and develop friendships with other deaf children. Prohibiting early sign language exposure is a mistake. First of all, there is no evidence that signing prohibits the development of spoken language. In fact, signing can support the deaf child’s speech development. Secondly, prohibiting sign language puts the child at risk for extreme language deprivation, literacy deficits, as well as depressed cognitive and social/emotional development.

Girls learning the American Sign Language. Girls learning the American Sign Language. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Exposure to two languages – as early as possible – is better than exposure to one language.

Jean F. Andrews is a Distinguished Professor emeritus of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education at Lamar University.

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