{Signing Saturday} Does Signing Delay Speech?

Recently I got to see a bunch of my mom’s friends that I hadn’t seen for a couple years. In fact this was the first time they got to meet my youngest, Ev. We were talking about how he isn’t much of a talker but that he has nearly 50 signs that he uses regularly and that he makes up his own signs. One of my mom’s friends asked me “Do you think he isn’t talking because you taught him sign language?”

This is a pretty common question. So does teaching your baby sign language delay his speech? The simple answer:

NO. There is no evidence to support that teaching sign language delays speech. In fact, the opposite may be true.

Dr. Linda Acredolo  and Dr. Susan Goodwyn have conducted numerous studies over the last 20 years on the use of sign language with hearing infants. One of these studies was funded by the National Institutes of Health and had the following outcomes (as summarized on the Baby Signs website)

Results of the study revealed that 24-month-old babies using baby sign language were on average talking more like 27- or 28-month-olds, representing more than a three-month advantage over the non-signers. The babies using baby sign language were also putting together significantly longer sentences. In addition, 36-month-old signers on average were talking like 47-month-olds, putting them almost a full year ahead of their average age mates. At 8 years, those who had used sign language as babies scored an average of 12 points higher in IQ on the WISC-III than their non-signing peers.

My Ev signing “horse” at a ranch

As you can see, in the study above the children were actually speaking better than their peers who were not taught sign language and were performing higher on IQ tests. Sign language is an integral part of many different programs around the country (and world) with positive results. To read more about the research in using signing with hearing infants and toddlers, see the information on the Baby Signs website.

However, if you start talking to people about this topic, you will find people that will claim that they taught their child sign and their child’s speech was delayed. Well…it is more likely that the child would have had a speech delay with or without the signing. At least with signing, the child had a way to communicate! Children with speech delays who have no other way to communicate often become very frustrated when attempting to communicate their wants and needs, which can result in tantrums and lots of tears…for everyone involved.

In fact, it is not uncommon for speech pathologists to teach sign language to children with significant speech delays to give them a way to communicate until they are able to use speech! If teaching sign language to a child would cause a delay, why on earth would a speech-language pathologist teach it to children with speech delays?

Simple: It is a myth that teaching your baby, toddler, or speech delayed child sign language will delay his speech.

So don’t let this myth stop you from signing to your little one!


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  1. says

    I love this post! You always have such a wonderful way of saying things! I started teaching my son more signs around 14 months because I thought his speech was a little delayed. He picked up the signs very quickly, but did not improve his speech until about 20 months. Now, at 26 months he uses almost complete sentences with 4-6 words in them, and has a vocabulary of hundreds of words. Signs or not, he wouldn’t have started talking until almost two, but I do think the signs prepared him for a language explosion that may not have happened without them.
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  2. shanebravo says

    I love this piece of writing and I plan to share it! My son is 20 months. He uses about 20+ signs. He is not spoken yet and numerous people have mentioned that signing might be delaying his verbal communication growth. As well, I feel that we need to look at speech as just one part of communication, especially as children all learn to talk at different rates anyway. Signers, they are communicating without irritation which they may not be if they had not signed.

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  3. Amy says

    Hi, I’m the mom of a 23 month old. I began signing with my son at six months, and in a matter of time he had picked up on it and was using basic signs to communicate. At his 12 month dr appt, our pediatrician wasn’t happy with his language development. She asked us to stop signing. I was reluctant, and continued to sign. Then, at his 18 month appt she was still concerned (he was babbling, but only had about 10-12 words). I stopped signing. Now, as we appoarch his two year check up, I am really concerned! I’m a teacher, so I talked with our SLP, who confirmed my fears… My son is delayed and recommended therapy. He can’t form words correctly, cannot isolate initial, medial, or final sounds, doesn’t have all his short vowel sounds, and still babbles as if carrying on a conversation in a foreign language. (He does has great receptive language.) My son still uses a few signs, and I could easily begin signing again, but I have been torn with the comments our pediatrician and daycare provider have made. If I’m reading your post correctly, you suggest using sign (in conjunction with speech of course) to help. Is this correct? Thank you for your blog, I found it when I truly felt helpless and lost!!

    • says

      Hi Amy,

      I am sorry to hear of your child’s struggles. I’m curious what concerned your pediatrician at only 12 months? Many children only have a couple words if any at that age so I’m curious what would have prompted her concern. The research done on signing with hearing babies shows no correlation between signing and delays. Will some children who are signed to have delays? Yes, but is the delay caused by signing? The research does not suggest this. If he was exposed to the same amount of language and interaction as other children who were not signed to, as I am sure he was, I doubt that signing had anything to do with his delay. Can I know for sure? No, as we can never say never. My son and daughter were both signed to…my daughter had average speech and language development and my son was a late talker. Same parents, same family, lots of language exposure for both. Different little sets of genetics and different little brains though.

      Regarding sign in children with speech delay…yes it is common to use sign to help bridge the gap in COMMUNICATION as we work on the SPEECH. I recommend it for the right children and the right families depending on that child’s specific needs. I can’t say what is best for YOUR child though. :) Good luck!

  4. says

    Thank you for writing this. My son turns 2 in a couple days but doesn’t have the “robust” verbal speech that so many of his playmates do. I have had several people ask when we are going to take him to a speech therapist because he only says about a ten verbal words. The issue I take with this is that he knows over 70 signs and most people have no clue. He tries to sign with adults (mostly describing and asking for things) and they are clueless that he is even communicating. Some have even asked why he fidgets with his hands so much.

    I think what bothers me the most is that my son WILL be seeing a speech therapist in a couple months not because of his “inability” to talk, but because he was born with a cleft lip that was repaired at 4 months old. Your post alleviates the anxiety that signing may have delayed him further. We were planning on teaching him sign language before he was born (and we didn’t yet know about the cleft), but now I am even more grateful that we did because if his cleft effects his speech, at LEAST he can communicate with us.

    I am REALLY disliking people continually comparing their kids to my son. Just because he is my only child people assume that my husband and I have our heads up our asses and need to be TOLD by strangers that he’s “delayed” or “insecure” because of his lacking verbal vocabulary. Of course, the fact that he is over 3 ft tall and not yet 2 makes people think he’s older than he really is so that’s not helping.

    • says

      Hi Joanie! Yes, it is very frustrating when your child is compared to other children. I have written here on the blog about my annoyance with the “Is he talking yet?” questions I got a lot about my son, who turned out to be a late talker. Yes, I signed with him, but I signed with my daughter as well and her speech and language skills are perfectly typical.

      10 spoken words at 2 is concerning, even with his wonderful signing vocabulary. The great news it sounds like you will be seeing an SLP soon who can check him out and let you know if he may need any additional help. Good luck to you!

      • says

        Just out of curiosity, what would a SLP do with a 2 year old? I mean other an assessing him, what would treatment look like at such an early age? And what can I, as a parent, do to help his speech at this age? I feel like all my husband and I do is read, talk, and play with our little guy constantly so when trying to think of something else we could be doing is just mind boggling. Your site is helpful but I can’t seem to find info on exercises for a child his age (I looked at your site months ago when he was a year an a half, and didn’t even know where to start because of his age). We have been trying really hard to even get him to mimic our verbal sounds but he just says no and explains his thoughts in other ways (signs, pointing, showing, leading, etc). Mama, Dada, Nana, moon, up, down, yes, no, diaper, cookie, more, bye-bye, Oh no!, boo boo, car, and ice are pretty much the only words he wants to say. The rest he signs, sometimes 2 or 3 sign sentences or he mixes verbal words and signs to complete his thought.

        Our appointment isn’t until April so I’d like to try to help him as much as I can before then. I feel like every time I am reassured that my little guy is fine (my bro didn’t say more than a dozen words until a year and a half says my mom) someone comes along to say there is a problem. Then my little decides to say something new! Then I get asked about why he’s not talking by a stranger… -_- So discouraging… and confusing!
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        • says

          Joanie, I know, it IS confusing, which is why having an SLP see your child is the best way to sort through it all. To answer your question, the therapy would depend on MANY factors, based on the assessment results. We look to see if the child is experiencing any set of symptoms that might lead to an underlying cause for the delay, and then go from there. It tends to be a lot of play therapy with parent education, but the exact goals/methods will depend based on the child’s individual needs.

          I know, clear as mud! ANother great site you can look at is Teach Me to Talk. She also has great information about toddler speech!