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By Fraser Speech-Language Pathologist and Site Manager Valerie Olheiser and Fraser School Sr. Education Coordinator Elizabeth Eng • sign language, ASL, american sign language, sign language for kids, kids sign language, teaching kids sign language, benefits of sign language, sign language speech alternative, sign language and cultural competency, sign language and children's brains, bilingualism benefits, learning two languages, • April 11, 2024

Sign language is typically viewed as a way for deaf and hard of hearing people to communicate. But sign language has become an increasingly popular form of communication for people without hearing challenges. According to the Modern Language Association, in 2021, American Sign Language (ASL) was the third most studied language at U.S. colleges and universities.  

Besides the joy of connecting with those whose primary language is ASL, learning sign language has other benefits, particularly for young children.

Bilingualism can strengthen a child’s cognitive function

Teaching a child more than one language can help strengthen their cognitive functioning. According to Handspeak.com, “Neuroscientists have known for decades that learning a new language enriches and enhances cognitive processes: higher abstract and creative thinking, better problem-solving skills, greater cognitive flexibility, better listening skills, greater academic achievement and other intellectual benefits.” So, learning ASL and English can help a child be more creative, a better problem-solver, a good listener and possibly, a better student.

Sign language can offer a speech alternative

It’s not just the deaf and hard of hearing people who struggle with vocal communication. Some people with autism find it difficult to speak when they’re experiencing sensory overload. In addition, some children with autism may begin speaking and then stop talking around age 2 or 3. Other intellectual or physical disabilities can make verbal speech difficult or impossible. Learning to value complementary forms of communication helps ease the burden on those who may struggle with vocal communication.

“A speech therapist’s main goal is to find a workable communication system for a child,” says Valerie Olheiser, Fraser Speech-Language Pathologist and Site Manager. “Sign language is one of the tools in the toolbox of communication modalities that support language development.”

Learning ASL increases cultural awareness and competency

Children who learn a different language, like Spanish, typically learn about the cultures that speak those languages during lessons. They can also engage more easily with other Spanish speakers — like people from Mexico, Spain and Nicaragua — and learn to understand and appreciate their cultures.

The same can be true of ASL. In the infant room at Fraser School®, every two weeks, the teachers model a simple sign while they say the word for it. Fraser School is an inclusive environment that welcomes disabled, neurodiverse and neurotypical children. Since children with autism and other disabilities may struggle with vocal language, teaching the infants sign language helps foster communication between peers. It also helps neurotypical children gain a better perspective and understanding of children with autism and disabilities.

Sign language can help encourage verbal speech

Sign language can also help bridge gaps in language, while children learn to speak vocally. Olheiser says sign language can help children build up their confidence in communication. Then, once they have a foundation for language, children might feel more comfortable beginning to use words.

Children at Fraser School can receive speech, occupational and physical therapy onsite.

“Because so many of our children do therapy onsite, we can talk to their clinicians and find out which signs they respond well to and use those signs in the classroom,” says Fraser School Sr. Education Coordinator Elizabeth Eng. So, children can practice sign language and verbal language with their teachers and peers. As Olheiser suggested, this often helps them become more comfortable beginning to use words.

Sign language can help facilitate learning

At Fraser School, Eng might share a book with simple signs in a classroom. She usually sings while she signs and has the children practice the signs with her. Using sign language can also help capture children’s attention, says Eng.

“When singing the ABC song with children, I will also use the signs for each letter; if I sign while I do it, young children are more engaged in learning,” says Eng. “And when they’re more engaged, they are more likely to retain the information.”