The Value of Deaf Children Learning Sign Language
A child’s brain is a sponge. Because of this, language acquisition is vital at a young age. Studies typically focus on acquisition of spoken languages, but there are also statistics about sign language that support the primary importance of language acquisition is early exposure of a fully accessible language. As long as the language has a full grammar and syntax it does not seem to matter if it is spoken or signed. In fact, the brain reacts to signed languages faster and at a younger age than spoken languages which is why Baby Sign Language is so popular with hearing children. But why has it yet to be used primarily for deaf children? The value of deaf children learning sign language is evident when looking at the evidence.
Children who are born deaf or become deaf at a young age do not receive adequate exposure to spoken language during development. Some think learning to lip-read is absolutely critical immediately. It takes years to learn a language that must be heard without having hearing. So a spoken language as a first language for deaf children is inadvisable. It creates a gap between these children and the rest of the world. Over time, without a full language, they become distanced and lose out on relational and educational opportunities setting them up for a very challenging upbringing and influencing their adulthood. Communication is VITAL for development.
First, early exposure to a natural language is critical for language acquisition. This is the cardinal conclusion of more than 30 years of research by linguists, psychologists, and other investigators. The ability to learn a language—spoken or signed—declines with age; exposure early in life is essential for native performance. (The Dana Foundation)
In recent years, studies have shown bilingual education is beneficial to deaf children in a hearing world. They cannot avoid learning English, but they must have a complete and accessible language at a young age. Studies show that children learn a sign language and spoken language at the same rate as children learn two spoken languages naturally.
I personally have personally spent time with children whose parents each speak a different first language, English and Hungarian. Each parent would speak to their children ONLY in their native language. The children learned each language fluently with the natural accent in each language. They could comfortably switch between the two languages and never got the vocabulary or grammar mixed up. Their brains naturally developed an understanding that they were two separate languages, and this did not slow their language development.
Additionally, a deaf child who has access to a full language (sign language) at a very early age is set up for a healthy psychological development barring other psychological barriers. If they can communicate with their family and friends beyond concrete concepts, they can share their feelings and emotions. They can avoid the Dinner Table Syndrome.
Second, providing infants and young children with a natural language—and a linguistic community where they are readily understood—unquestionably fosters their emotional and cognitive growth. Without a natural way to communicate their desires, fears, and other feelings, deaf children in a hearing environment are often isolated, with negative emotional consequences. (The Dana Foundation)
The value of deaf children learning sign language cannot be denied especially when you see how children soak up information. With access to sign language, they can embrace all the world has to offer including other languages (spoken and signed) as they grow up.