Sign Language: The Best Second Language? By Steve Kokette

Research shows the benefits of learning Sign for hearing kids are many. In fact, the benefits are so numerous that one has to wonder if perhaps a Sign language should be the second language that hearing kids learn.

A book has just been published advocating that all kids should be exposed to Sign. The book has been written by Dr. Marilyn Daniels, a professor at Penn State, and she looks at dozens of studies that have been done involving over 400 kids. The book is Dancing With Words: Signing for Hearing Children’s Literacy.

Children go in and out of phases where they love to mimic, verbally and/or physically. Many youngsters, before they speak any words, will even develop signs for many things – juice, milk, the desire to have diapers changed, etc. Almost all kids go through a phase or more where they appreciate learning Sign and are very receptive to it.
Teaching children Sign or signs before they learn to speak can inspire them to learn spoken language earlier, which is a blessing for many parents. Apparently the use of signs gets many children to enjoy communication, and take it to another level – the spoken word.

But once kids start speaking it’s still to their benefit to continue to learn Sign. Although some people may feel it’s confusing to learn two languages at once, one study found when people learn two languages at the same time they learn both languages better.

And there are those who feel that learning a Sign language develops more of the brain than learning a spoken language. When learning one or more spoken languages the information is taken in, processed, and stored in a small area of the brain’s left hemisphere. But when learning a Sign language the visual information is taken in by the right hemisphere, and then transferred for processing and storage to the left hemisphere. Dr. Marilyn Daniels likes to point out that learning a spoken language only uses the mouth and ears, but learning a Sign language as a second language utilizes the hands and eyes in addition to the ears and mouth.

Research has shown some surprising benefits for hearing kids who learn Sign.

Quite a few studies have concluded Sign can improve hearing kids’ reading. Many children learning to read have to stop often when they get confused upon encountering words they don’t know the meaning of. Learning to read can become frustrating, which it shouldn’t be. Learning Sign many help improve reading because when kids learn a word in conjunction with a sign they are more likely to remember the meaning of the word. With a larger vocabulary kids stop less often when learning to read, so learning to read is less frustrating, and more of what it should be – interesting, perhaps even fun.

A surprising study, Sign in Education, out of Middlesborough, England, had results showing Sign improved students math skills. Students in this study were first taught BSL (British Sign Language), and then taught math entirely in BSL, without using any spoken language. When these students had their test scores compared to peers who had learned in the traditional manner of voice only, their scores were noticeably higher than their peers. There are at least two possible reasons why this could happen.

Teachers who simultaneously speak and Sign lessons often do so because hearing kids have such a fascination with Sign that they pay greater attention to what is being taught, and these teachers are likely to feel the superior math scores of those using BSL must be attributed, at least in part, to students paying greater attention in class. Professor William Stokoe of Gallaudet University might suggest the better performance by the BSL group could be due to Sign “wiring” the brain so it is easier to learn math. As evidence he might point to the deaf students at Gallaudet University, a university for the deaf, where the student body scores higher on math tests than their peers at other universities.

And research has even shown there are benefits for those combining Sign and song in learning vocabulary. Three U.S. studies have shown different types of children benefit when Sign and song are combined. The first two studies showed advantages for “normal” first graders (Madsen, 1991) and autistic children (Buday, 1995). The latest research (Schunk, 1999) shows Sign benefiting kindergarten to second graders who are learning English as a second language. Participants were divided in to four different groups to learn a text – sung text paired with signs, spoken text paired with signs, sung text, and spoken text only. The two groups learning the most vocabulary used Sign, and the group learning the most combined Sign and song.

But there are also benefits to learning Sign that are obvious and that don’t need to be researched. For example, Sign improves kids’ motor skills. And it can be used when spoken language is inappropriate or impossible. It also allows people to communicate with another segment of the population – the deaf.

Another reason for learning a Sign language involves the greater “universality” that Sign languages have over spoken languages. Deaf people who use different Sign languages have an uncanny ability to communicate with one another that people speaking different spoken languages don’t have. If you were to take 10 to 15 deaf people who know one and only one Sign language, and each person knew a different Sign language, and if you were to put them in a room, within a few hours they would figure out how to communicate with one another. However, if you were to take 10 to 15 hearing people who know one and only one spoken language, and each person knew a different spoken language, and if you were to put them in a room, hours later they would still be trying to figure out how to communicate with one another. In fact, this group would eventually start using pantomime to communicate, an attempt to create a Sign language.

But if learning a Sign language became accepted as the best second language it should also help deaf people become more prosperous and productive because they will be able to communicate with more people, thus making it easier to share their talents with others, and to grow professionally. And that could help any nation’s economy.

Copyright 1995 Steve Kokette. For further information, you can Steve’s site at http://www.signit2.com/