A “Language First” Approach: Using Sign to Support Spoken Language

Picture this: You’ve just sat down for a quick bite to eat at your favorite local lunch spot. You’ve been non-stop today; Back-to-back clients, seemingly endless IEP meetings, and nothing but a twice-reheated-still-luke-warm cup of coffee all day.

You’re hungry. Hangry. You already know what you want to order. The waiter comes over and asks, “What can I get you today?”. You open your mouth to respond, start to form your sentence, but then you realize he’s not understanding you. You repeat yourself. You try repeating your order louder.

You try it slower. You try it with more enunciation. He is just not getting it. Now he’s frustrated. You’re both frustrated. You want to just give up and leave, hangry and all. If only you could do something to help him understand. You whip out the menu, point to the #4 special, and immediate relief washes over the waiter’s face. “Number 4? Got it!”. Phew, crisis averted.

Now imagine this happening every day. Every conversation. Every need you have, every want, every like, dislike, everything. Understood efforts are limited to pointing, thumbs-ups, shaking your head, and furrowing your brow. For many children with communication delays and disorders, this is an everyday reality. Just like using written text to support spoken language, we can use a visual language, American Sign Language (ASL) to support spoken language and speech development.

In this segment, we’ll learn how implementing signs from ASL can support spoken language, and speech development, and promote confidence in communication. We’ll discuss the individuals who might benefit from using signs to support spoken language and debunk some common misconceptions about the correlation between sign language and spoken language, speech, and bilingualism. What is a language-first approach, and why does it matter?

A language-first approach generally pertains to individuals who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing (HH), but language doesn’t have to be limited to benefitting one population. Signing can benefit anyone at any age with any communication preference. The idea of language-first means we are focused on a child learning a language to communicate, not necessarily spoken English, as a priority. Learning and using a shared medium is imperative. For some children, this looks like ASL.

For some children, this looks like augmentative or alternative communication (AAC) through communication boards or speech-generating devices. Whatever the source, honoring it and using their efforts to support their overall communication attempts is key. When we look at typically hearing children using signs and/or ASL to support their spoken English attempts, we see confidence start to grow as they are finally understood through a common language.

Myth Busters

MYTH: Using signs will deter the child from using their words.

TRUTH: Using signs IS using words. Using supports in the form of a visual language creates a concrete reference for both communication partners. In fact, some research shows the benefit to expressive and receptive language acquisition when using signs (Goodwyn, S. W. et al, 2000). When we provide families and educators with pertinent signs to start using immediately with their students, we’re giving them a launching point to successful, functional communication.

MYTH: Using signs is a crutch.

TRUTH: Children may lack confidence in communicating due to limited intelligibility and using a shared visual language to communicate may increase the child’s confidence and encourage them to keep trying. More confidence = more effort = more opportunities to model targeted speech and language skills. In addition to gaining confidence, some data “suggest that human language may have originated as a visual language and became primarily auditory with the later development of our voice/speech tract” (Ruben, J., 2005). It’s only natural!

MYTH: But it’ll confuse them…

TRUTH: Bilingual individuals have been shown to have more gray matter than monolingual individuals. Supporting a child’s native language with an additional language is “an asset … not a liability” (Guiberson, 2013). Efforts in Action: What does this look like in real life? Here’s an example: Child: “Uh!” points at fridge “Uh! Uh!” Mom: “It looks like you want something out of the fridge, let’s look inside.” Mom opensthe fridge. Mom offers one choice at a time, bringing out the milk and the juice.

Mom brings hand up toward face for increased attention at face for articulators. “Hmm.. we have milk… (signs MILK) or we have juice…(signs JUICE)... I wonder if you want milk or juice.” Mom signs WANT MILK, WANT JUICE. Child: signs MILK “m…” Mom: “You want milk.” Mom signs WANT MILK Child: signs WANT MILK “Want milk.” Mom: “You want milk. Let’s get some milk for you to drink.” Let’s break that down:

● Mom used the child’s direction to find a shared point of interest

● Mom offered concrete choices

● Mom provided a visual and verbal model using signs MILK, JUICE, and WANT to compliment the concrete objects: milk and juice.

● Mom brought attention to her face to increase connection and brought attention to articulators for speech production

● Mom honored the child’s attempts at communication using the sign MILK and attempt at spoken English.

● Mom provided a phrase in ASL: WANT MILK

● Mom provided a phrase in spoken English: You want milk.

● Mom expands on the child’s utterance: Let’s get some milk for you to drink.

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due While no one holds a monopoly on any language, it’s important to understand the cultural significance of American Sign Language (ASL) within Deaf culture. ASL isn’t just hand gestures and facial expressions, it’s a dynamic language with its own syntax and rules of grammar.

When we offer signs to support spoken English and speech production, we are not using ASL in its entirety and certainly not using it as a last resort. We are not lessening the credibility of the language by choosing bits and pieces to benefit a spoken language. We are using words (signs) from the language as a support to offer children freedom of functional language. For more information on ASL and Deaf Culture, see resources under “Helpful Resources for Families & Clinicians”.

Final Thoughts

The best way to start implementing signing into your speech therapy sessions is just to start implementing signing into your speech therapy sessions.

Easy enough, right? Start with functional words like WANT, DON’T WANT, MORE, STOP, HELP. Often parents, caregivers, and educators focus on polite words and phrases like PLEASE and THANK YOU, but when functional communication is our focus, manners aren’t our number one priority. Our number one priority is supporting a child’s autonomy and encouraging functional communication. Add signs that are pertinent to their routines little by little (e.g. HELP + OPEN, MORE + MILK). Always provide a visual and verbal model. A great technique is sandwiching: either spoken language + sign + repeated spoken language or sign + spoken language + repeated sign. Make it functional, make it fun, and make it accessible for families.

Helpful Resources for Families & Clinicians:

● American Society for Deaf Children https://deafchildren.org

● HandSpeak ASL Dictionary https://www.handspeak.com

● Lifeprint(ASL University) ASL Dictionary https://asluniversity.com

● Signing Time Sing-and Sign-a-Long Videos https://www.signingtime.com

 Language First Resources and Advocacy Information https://language1st.org References:

1. Goodwyn, S. W., Acredolo, L. P., & Brown, C. A. (2000). Impact of symbolic gesturing on early language development. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 24(2), 81–103.

2. Ruben, Robert. (2005). Sign language: Its history and contribution to the understanding of the biological nature of language. Acta oto-laryngologica. 125. 464-7. 10.1080/00016480510026287.

3. Guiberson, Mark. (2013). Bilingual Myth-Busters Series Language Confusion in Bilingual Children. Perspectives on Communication Disorders and Sciences in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Populations. 20. 5. 10.1044/cds20.1.


Author: Abigail Reilly-Eckstrom, MA CCC-SLP

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Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered as professional advice. The content is based on the author's personal experiences, research, and opinions. It is always recommended to consult with a qualified professional or expert before making any decisions or taking action based on the information provided in this blog.

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