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Sign language uses the hands to communicate using a manual alphabet, signals, gestures, and facial features to communicate with someone who is deaf. The history of sign language cannot be credited to a certain period as most likely humans have always incorporated some hand signals, gestures, and expressions to communicate. However, sign language as it has evolved today has its beginning as early as the sixteenth century when physicians first understood a series of illustrated symbols could be used to communicate with the deaf. When learning about sign language it is important to realize that there is a difference in how the word deaf is used. When speaking of lack of or loss of hearing, deaf (lower case) is used to describe the physical condition. Individuals with hearing loss may refer to themselves as Deaf (capital letter) or their community of friends as a Deaf Culture (capitalized). This is the same as anyone else from another culture referring to the Mexican-American or from an Asian Culture.

Why Should Kids Learn Sign Language?

sign language Sign language is a complete language and means of communication. Many schools are now teaching sign language as a second language. Babies can learn sign language at a very young age. Teaching babies and young hearing kids to sign takes advantage of their natural tendency to use their hands to point to objects or gesture before they are developed enough to communicate verbally. Sign language involves eye contact and enhances bonding between parent and child, encourages fine motor skills, and improves communication and expands vocabulary use as a child learns to express themselves verbally. Some parents fear teaching a child sign language before they can talk will discourage verbal communication. However, many experts have found young children who learn sign language have a greater vocabulary and communication skills than children who do not sign.

How Can Kids Learn & Practice Sign Language?

As sign language has become recognized as a second language, there has been an increase in resources available to teach kids to sign. Many preschools make teaching sign language a part of their curriculum and incorporate the use of basic signs throughout the day. For parents wishing to teach young children sign language at home the key is to make it fun and entertaining. You can find many good books for teaching sign language to kids and together parent and child can learn to sign using games and interactive activities online and off. Several television programs are also introducing sign language throughout their programs and it is possible that your preschooler will excitedly show you their first signs learned by watching one of these programs! 

Sign Language Information and Resources

  • Center for Communication Hearing & Deafness – This is a great resource on hearing loss and deafness. Their online store has a number of good books designed to teach even very young children sign language.
  • History of Sign Language – As early as the sixteenth century, a physician in Northern Italy declared deaf people could learn to communicate using written combinations of symbols. This led to the first book of signs for a manual alphabet being published in 1620. This site gives a timeline of the development of sign language that led to the use of ASL as a standardized language used in Deaf Culture.
  • ASL Overview – This overview of American Sign Language (ASL) This article does a very good job of explaining that AML is truly a unique and different language complete with its own style, regional variations, structure, and sentence construction.
  • Benefits of Sign Language for All Children – American Sign Language (ASL) is now taught as a second language in many schools. The benefits of all children being taught sign language is the subject of new research studies. For babies as young as six months benefit from enhanced bonding, hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills development and improved communication as they learn to interact with simple signs before they are developed enough to use verbal skills.
  • Teaching Your Baby Signs Benefits You Both - You may have heard that teaching a baby sign language may delay speech. Experts are finding that learning sign language aids young children in language development, communications skills, and vocabulary sooner than those who do not learn sign language. Tips for teaching baby sign language includes demonstrating signs consistently, repeating signs, use eye contact, and link the sign to an actual object or movement.
  • Uses and Benefits of American Sign Language – American Sign Language is not only for the deaf. American Sign Language is now a second language for many people. Schools throughout the country are making ASL part of their curriculum. This article highlights some uses and benefits American Sign Language offers in a variety of situations.
  • Resources for Families with Deaf or Hard of Hearing Children (PDF) – A resource list for families with deaf children. This resource is published by the state of Michigan but many of the resources listed have local offices throughout the nation.
  • Listening in on the Deaf Culture – Deaf Culture (capitalized) refers to the cultural identity of individuals who are deaf. Deaf Culture is the community and world where deaf individuals connect and interact. Most individuals who are born deaf do not absorb cultural expectations and interactions from the parents, but from their peers.
  • Two Perspectives on Deaf People – Part of a site with extensive information regarding Deaf Culture, this article bring attention to two very different perspectives regarding deaf people. The pathological view defines the Deaf Community as a group of people handicapped by lack of hearing., a group of people with learning problems due to hearing loss, and a group of people that are not normal because have a loss of hearing. In contrast, a cultural perspective defines the Deaf Community as a group of people with a common language, a group whose primary means of communication is visual and who share a common culture. Your perspective will influence how you relate to deaf people.
  • Kid Quest: Hearing Loss – This CDC page helps to answer questions children have concerning hearing loss. This site also has helpful resource information and links to fun facts, quizzes, and recommended books and movies.
  • Learn to Sign with Koko – Meet Koko a gorilla that has learned to communicate using sign language! Koko understands and uses over 1000 words to communicate her needs. PBS has filmed a documentary called A Conversation with Koko that is available for purchase through their website.
  • Fun Facts About ASL (PDF) – Fun facts about ASL, tips to learn or teach ASL, and resources are available on this colorful document.
  • Signing Time®Kids – Is a site full of games, color pages, and tools designed to make learning signs fun for kids of all ages. There is also a link here to their commercial site where you may purchase books, videos, and other resource materials.
  • Sign Design with Arthur –PBS cartoon character Arthur introduces children to sign language skills. Here, you, or your kids can type in names, questions, or statements and Arthur will show how to sing that information. There is a printable finger spelling chart and a general overview/ description of sign language under the Other Information tab.
  • Baby Sign Language – Teaching kids sign language at an early age is possible. Using baby sign language can help your child communicate effectively even before they have developed enough skills to communicate verbally. Learning sign language does not delay verbal communication but can help lessen the frustration parents and children experience when a young child cannot verbally express their needs.
  • Sign Language Resources - A multiple resource guide that includes a free printable sign language alphabet chart. Learning sign language can help children as young as 6-months to benefit from hand eye-coordination and develop early learning skills. Coloring pages, charts showing sign language words and more can also be found here.
  • 100 Basic American Signs – A list of 100 common words and videos showing how to sign is done here. Signs are easy to follow and educational. Watching these learning video demonstrations to sign words is great tool for parents and children to use together.
  • Sign-A-Lot ™ - Sign-A-Lot is a series designed to teach hearing children American Sign Language (ASL). Learning to sign as a second language has been show to help children from pre-school to middle grades, improve their vocabulary, grasp letter and number recognition sooner, and assists in reading and spelling skills. Limited free downloads are available on site, and there are links for ordering the full series.
  • Let Your Fingers Do the Talking – Are you looking for fun ways to teach your kids sign language? Here are five ideas to get you started. You and your child can also watch a video of the Alphabet Song in ASL version. Bookmark this page! The video is a favorite with preschoolers.
  • Annual ASL Festival – Each year since 1997, Northeastern University has hosted an ASF festival. The festival highlights art competitions, storytelling, skits, and workshops.

Different kinds of Sign Language

Just like languages that primarily use acoustic patterns, there are many different kinds of sign language from different parts of the world. Some of the primary kinds of sign languages include:

  • BANZSL, or British, Australian and New Zealand Sign Language
  • Auslan - The sign language of the Australian deaf community
  • New Zealand Sign Language or NZSL - The main language of the Deaf community in New Zealand
  • Sign Supported English or SSE - The preferred signing system for hearing people to communicate with the deaf
  • International Sign - Also known as IS, is an international auxiliary language used at international meetings such as the World Federation of the Deaf
  • American Sign Language (ASL) - Is a complete, complex language that employs signs made with the hands and other movements, including facial expressions and postures of the body
  • British Sign Language (BSL) - Is the sign language used in the United Kingdom (UK)
  • Mexican Sign Language - Widely used in Mexico city, Monterrey and in Guadalajara.It varies even within a country

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