Will Teaching My Baby Sign Language Delay His or Her Speech?

by Christina Schabow
(Portland, Oregon)

Portland Early Learning Center Logo

Portland Early Learning Center Logo

This is by far one of the most common questions I get form parents:  Will teaching my baby to sign delay his speech? 

As a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) I love to answer this question!  A good deal of research has been done to address this and has shown us that babies who sign do not have an increased risk of delayed speech/language

In fact, research indicates that many babies who sign actually go on to have both early and advanced speech.  Wow! 

Let's take a look at why this phenomenon is so:

1) SIGNING IS NATURAL - If you think about it, babies learn naturally to gesture.

They throw their hands up in the air to indicate "up", babies clap to indicate "I like that!", they point to express "I want that". 

Signing with your baby expands on this already intuitive means of early communication.

2) SIGNS ARE A BRIDGE TO SPEECH - Much like crawling is to walking, gesturing/signing is to speech. 

Crawling is a natural first step enabling your baby to explore her world before she is ready to walk. 

Signing empowers your child to communicate before she is ready to talk (vocally).  Babies don't decide to forgo walking because they already have a method of moving around -- when their bodies are ready, they will walk! 

A point in time comes when walking is easier and more effective than crawling.  The same is true for signing and speech

Ultimately when your baby is ready, speech will become more convenient and more effective than signing. 

Just as babies gradually move from crawling to walking, signing babies eventually transition from signing to speaking.

3) SIGNING READIES A BABY FOR SPEAKING -   Oh how I love to think about, write about, chat about the many ways signing prepares a baby for speaking! 

Signing families are very focused on communicating and thus spend a great deal of time in face-to-face, language-rich interactions with their babies. 

As parents are teaching their baby signs, they use lots of repetition of both the signs AND the spoken words.   These committed parents talk about the objects which they are signing about,  and repeatedly show these objects to baby, demonstrating how those objects are used to keep their babies' interest

All this practice with language and words results in signing babies having broad receptive vocabulary knowledge

The rest is like dominoes:  The earlier a child understands a sign, the sooner he can use the sign, the more signs he uses, the more words he can speak when his little mouth, tongue and lips are ready! 

It also should be said that signing babies have the advantage of participating in give-and-take conversations much earlier than babies who don't sign.  This too readies a child for spoken communication. 

All of these things come together to lay the foundation for speech.  It's like all of the pieces are ready and waiting and as soon as Baby is able, speech typically takes off!

Certainly there are times when even a signing toddler has delayed speech.  But it's NOT likely the signing that has caused this.  In fact, for the reasons stated above, one of the first things a knowledgeable SLP will do with a child who is late to talk is teach them to sign

And for those families who do have a child with delayed speech, I encourage you to think about the ultimate goal of signing and speech:  COMMUNICATION. 

I can confidently assure you that many a family with a late-talking, signing child has thanked their lucky stars that their child could at least express himself in some way, alleviating so much frustration from a breakdown in communication. 

Ultimately, signing will NOT cause your baby to have delayed speech.  It WILL be one of the best things you do to help prepare your baby for talking! 

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