Benefits of Learning Sign Language

. September 1, 2020.
Mainous, right of center holding her granddaughter Hollyn, with her family (minus another 12 family members!)

By Lindsey Melden and Erin Schoen Marsh

COVID has presented many problems for the educational community, but one rising trend is the teaching of languages in virtual and homeschooling situations. Parents who have always wished their children could learn another language at school are using this time to introduce their little ones to Arabic, Spanish, French, American Sign Language (ASL) and more. 

Language connects human beings, creates relationships, and opens doors to a different culture and way of thinking. Learning basic sign language can allow communication with the Deaf community, create neural pathways that help the brain function more efficiently, and link the mind and body in ways that other languages do not. Plus, for those who are deaf and hard of hearing, knowing basic sign language can make all the difference–especially now that lip reading is impossible with masks. 

Language deprivation

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), the first five years of a child’s life are critical for brain development and language formation. When a child is deaf or hard of hearing (HoH), their brain has a harder time collecting language input. Children receive audible messages all day through TV, radio, and surrounding conversations. Yet when a child can’t hear, skills developed by those experiences are lost. When sufficient language exposure is blocked during the critical years of early development (birth to age 5), children can develop language deprivation with long-term negative effects. Sign language can fill in those gaps, creating a rich and vibrant foundation of language and connection, explains the Nyle DiMarco Foundation

The history of ASL 

Julie Mainous, a mom and grandma from Delta, was born with normal hearing to two Deaf parents and learned ASL as her first language. The term for hearing children of deaf adults is CODA. She is a Toledo area interpreter and tutor and says, “Signing is a part of me. I am drawn to it. It is so visual and vibrant.” 

Mainous interpreting at her church, Monclova Road Baptist Church

Mainous’ father was raised when the medical opinion of the time was to discourage Deaf and HoH children from learning sign language. In extreme cases, children would have their hands tied down at school to keep them from signing. The thought was that sign language would actually delay speech development and leave children more isolated, although there is no empirical evidence to support this. Even though ASL has existed for nearly 200 years, it has only recently become an accepted tool for parents to help their children acquire valuable language skills and be successful, and many school districts, including local school districts, discourage learning ASL for HoH students. 

Emmah Artino, mom and a resident of Toledo’s Old West End, is a Toledo area interpreter with a Deaf spouse who is also a child of Deaf parents (CODA). Her Deaf father had an experience almost identical to Mainous’ father: “My dad had his hands tied and struck at his ‘mainstream’ school and wasn’t allowed to learn sign until he was 18. He was told he would never be more than a janitor. He became an engineer.” 

“It’s a common story that many Deaf people share,” Artino continues, ”…being denied language and therefore opportunities, and not all Deaf/HoH are as lucky in their lives because of [that denial of opportunities].” 

Resources for families

Mainous loves that she was taught ASL as a child and feels it has helped her in life. “It’s not ever going to hurt them,” she says. “Just give your child all the tools to communicate that you can. See what they thrive on, and then you can adapt.” 

Amy Figliomeni, Teacher of the Deaf/Hard of Hearing for Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, says, “Watching young deaf students become empowered when given access to language through ASL is transformative….Through immersion in ASL, the child is able to be included in communication at home and school and to express him/herself, which reduces frustrations, builds relationships, and provides the foundation for future learning.”

For those who would like to learn ASL, Artino advises, “I highly recommend finding a language model or coach” because finding a native signer is important for hearing parents who don’t sign themselves. Both Artino and Mainous recommend the Deaf Services Center of NW Ohio as a local resource for parents seeking interpreters, advocacy or ASL classes. 

Artino also organizes all of the interpreters for Toledo Pride, and she encourages any parent who is on the fence about teaching ASL to their child to “find Deaf and HoH people and listen to their stories.” 

Signing for ALL kids

Not only does learning ASL greatly benefit children with hearing loss, but it’s also beneficial for any child. Children with speech delays and speech apraxia can benefit from using ASL to communicate their thoughts, and children receive the same intellectual benefits from learning ASL as they do learning any second language. 

Parenting is not a one-size-fits-all experience, but providing children language tools and a new way to connect with the wider world is a gift in and of itself. 

SIDEBARS OR BOX OUT: 

Benefits of learning ASL for any child:

  • Connection: children can communicate their frustrations when speech prevents them from doing so.
  • Good for the brain: research shows that learning a second language boosts problem solving, critical thinking, concentration, memory and more.
  • Good for school: bilingual children have improved reading, writing and math scores.
  • Confidence: learning a new language gives children a sense of empowerment and accomplishment.
  • Empathy and inclusion: bilingual children have more positive attitudes toward other cultures, and when more people know ASL, more Deaf/HoH children will be included in classrooms and adults in workplaces. When everyone is included, everyone wins. 

Sources: National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Nyle DiMarco Foundation.

OPTIONAL SECOND SIDEBAR: 

Learn ASL Together Online:

ASL App: learn conversational ASL in an app designed by Deaf signers.

Signing Time: a kid-approved online subscription with ASL songs, videos, and more.

ASL Nook: YouTube channel made by a Deaf family 

The Nyle Dimarco Foundation: learn more about the value of Language Acquisition & bilingualism for children with hearing loss