For people who are deaf, the benefits of learning sign are undeniable. But what about all the benefits for the people who can hear?
For one, anyone who knows American Sign Language has a way to communicate with all ASL signers in the world. According to Gallaudet University, ASL is the sixth most common language in the United States. Knowing ASL gives you a way to build relationships with countless deaf people and a way to enjoy the richness of the Deaf community nationwide. Beyond communicating with deaf friends, ASL is also a surprisingly versatile language. You can use it to talk underwater, at great distances, at a loud concert, or even in total silence.
But would you believe me if I told you that the benefits of ASL go way beyond connection and convenience? In fact, sign language users—and particularly native signers who have used ASL their entire lives—actually have scientific advantages over other language speakers.
So if you’re fluent in ASL, here are four fascinating benefits that you just might have:
It’s becoming increasingly common, even hip, to teach babies sign language before they can talk. Besides the practical aspects of parents knowing what their kids want, this practice has many benefits.
According to the American Sign Language University, babies as young as eight months can already sign words and imitate signs from their parents. Having a way to communicate early allows kids to sign when they’re hungry, thirsty, or in pain, communicating valuable information to a parent that can save so much frustration.
Beyond that, sign language increases opportunities for parents and children to bond in positive ways. This can eliminate untold stress and anxiety for a child and opens pathways of greater trust and understanding in the parent-child relationship. Researcher S. Glairon studied this phenomenon in depth in his 2003 study on babies using ASL.
There’s still a lot of research to do on the benefits of baby sign language, but some research suggests that this earlier, easier communication in a child’s life can lead to greater levels of confidence in childhood and beyond. These same benefits hold true for autistic or special needs children who develop spoken language skills more slowly or have trouble articulating their needs.
Researcher Marilyn Daniels from Pennsylvania University has conducted some fascinating research on pre-school aged kids and kindergarteners learning ASL. Over the course of 10 years of research, Daniels has compared the learning levels of classes who were taught ASL and classes that weren’t.
Every time, the ASL-learning kids always had higher reading levels and a 15–20% improvement in vocabulary. They even had higher test scores than the non-ASL kids. All of these findings matched up with Daniels’s previous findings at Central Connecticut State University where she learned that hearing children of deaf parents consistently excel at reading and English.
In Daniels’s words, “[ASL] helps children in terms of giving a picture for the words. Most of the signs are iconic, so since the signs look like what the words are, it helps the child remember what the word is. Since the child can associate the letters in a word with a sign, they are more easily able to remember it.”
Daniels’s studies with the school children were so impressive that often her results would sabotage her own experiments. Teachers were so blown away by the improvement of their ASL classes that they inevitably started teaching ASL to the non-ASL class, which meant Daniels could no longer collect her comparison data. Oh well.ASL-learning kids always have higher reading levels and a 15–20% improvement in vocabulary Click To Tweet
LiveScience has published a piece all about Michele Cooke’s research on this at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In her career as a geologist, Cooke noticed that students well-versed in ASL had a much easier time grasping the structural geology that her students always struggled with. The key to understanding these concepts is strong visualization skills and the ability to process complex spatial information. As it turns out, native signers have both of these qualities.
To test her theory, Cooke conducted a preliminary experiment by teaching structural geology at six different high schools for the deaf around the country. Every classroom gobbled up her structural geology like it was breakfast cereal, dramatically out-performing every graduate class she had ever taught. Although Cooke’s research is still nascent, she was blown away by the clear results that have already emerged.
And Cooke isn’t the only researcher who has seen evidence of ASL signers’ superior spatial reasoning skills. Marc Marschark from the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf has also seen a correlation:
“There is a wealth of evidence showing that native signers, deaf or hearing, are superior to non-signers in mental generation and mental manipulation, so a spatial-reasoning task would fit in nicely.”
Now this one is reserved for people who have been signing since they were babies, but being an ASL native signer has been linked to a higher IQ score. Dr. Linda P. Acredolo from U. C. Davis and Dr. Susan W. Goodwyn from California State University have conducted a slew of research on teaching babies sign language and its long-term effects (check out this article or this one if you’re interested).
Over the course of their 20-year longitudinal study, their findings were many. One thing they discovered was that early exposure to ASL leads to heightened reasoning skills and raises a child’s IQ by an average of 12 points. Not too shabby.
Beyond that, Acredolo and Goodwyn’s ASL babies were speaking much sooner than their non-ASL controls. Not only were they talking almost three months earlier, they were also using more complex and longer sentences, which set them up for faster cognitive development and academic success very early in their childhoods.
At the end of the day, there’s just too much positive research out there to NOT invest in some quality ASL training, even if you can hear. So spread the word, get your hearing friends involved, and definitely teach your kids if you have them. At the very least they’ll be improving their communication, language, and spatial skills. And of course you’ll be opening the door to build some great friendships in the Deaf community.