Cognitive Benefits of Learning Sign Language as an Infant
Does learning infant sign language make hearing children smarter? Learning sign has additional cognitive benefits to learning spoken second languages. Sign can be used by those who cannot speak, uses more areas of the brain than spoken language, and studies have shown that children who sign score better on assessment tests.
Benefits of Learning Baby Sign Language
On average, babies who are exposed to sign language verbalize earlier than babies only exposed to spoken language.
A commonly accepted rationale behind the cognitive benefits of infant sign language is that infants are able to understand spoken language before their vocal apparatus is strong and developed enough to pronounce words. Children develop the motor coordination in their arms and hands that enable them to sign before the vocal apparatus is developed. Therefore, babies and toddlers who sign tend to be happier because they can communicate their specific needs.
Perhaps the reinforcement that language is a useful two-way tool encourages these children to use all language tools available to them as soon as they can.
Also, most likely as a result of the desire to communicate and the understanding of sign, babies and toddlers who use sign develop fine motor coordination more quickly than children who do not use sign.
A higher intelligence quotient is another possible cognitive benefit of infant sign language. As early as the year 2000, child development researchers at the University of California, Davis documented that children who had used sign with their families as babies had a higher IQ later in life.
Children who had reached age 8 and graduated from second grade were given the WISC-III. The results showed a statistically significant and impressive IQ advantage for baby signers.
In a 1998 Italian study, hearing first and second graders were taught sign language, and later showed greater memory skills and advanced cognition. This was true when compared to children learning a second spoken language and children learning no second language. The results clearly point to sign language aiding cognitive advancement. (Teaching Sign Language to Hearing Children as a Possible Factor in Cognitive Enhancement, Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 3:2 1998, copyright 1998 Oxford University Press)
It has long been understood that deaf children have better spatial cognition than hearing children. Language is processed in the left hemisphere of the brain, and that is true for both spoken and signed languages.
Sign language, however, requires the use of the right hemisphere to interpret spacial concepts, and therefore on average the deaf have superior spatial cognition to hearing non-signers.
When children learn both spoken language and sign language, they have the opportunity to develop their spacial awareness and cognition as well as their other language abilities.