The Hands of Babes

Babies can learn sign language before they learn to talk, and it may improve their overall language skills.

By Elise Kramer, published on November 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Q: Is it true that babies can learn to communicate through sign language before they can talk? If so, does it affect their speech development?

A: Teaching an infant sign language may sound odd, but it isn't just a parlor trick. Babies have the cognitive capacity to understand language before they can speak, and early on, have better control of their hands than their mouths. If they can learn signs for objects and concepts, babies can communicate their needs -- milk, for example, or dirty -- rather than simply crying.

Linda Acredolo, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Davis, first investigated sign language with her infant daughter in 1985. She followed up the experiment with years of laboratory research, finding that most children can learn to sign at around one year of age, though the exact age depends on an individual's interests and development. It usually takes several months of parental signing before a child will respond.

Parents often worry that signing will slow verbal development, but Acredolo, coauthor of Baby Signs: How to Talk with Your Baby Before Your Baby Can Talk, says her research shows early sign language may actually promote language learning. In one study, 140 pairs of parents were randomly asked to use hand signals or provide plenty of verbal stimulation. The babies whose parents signed to them later scored higher on repeated tests of verbal ability. And at age 8, the children who had signed scored an average of 12 points higher on an IQ test.

Marilyn Daniels, a professor at Pennsylvania State University and
author of Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children's Literacy, says studies of hearing children born to deaf parents show that they generally excel in academics.

Tara and Jared Huston, physicians living in New York City, recently began signing to their 8-month-old daughter, Emma. Tara learned about it on the Internet and found that Emma's day-care workers also use signs. Though she's read about possible cognitive benefits, Tara says that's not why she decided to use signs: "It's really just to try to get to know her earlier than I otherwise could."