Receptive language is when we are learning to listen to & understand the language around us. When babies are born, they are fascinated by the sounds around them. When babies and toddlers start to demonstrate that they know the names (labels) for objects and people around them, we know that they are making receptive language progress. Other milestones in receptive language development include pointing to familiar objects, responding to simple questions or requests (“Bring me the ball” or “Want more juice?”), and anticipating the endings of simple games like peek-a-boo or “This Little Piggy.”
Expressive language is when we are learning to speak and use language to express ourselves. Babies use cries, body language, and facial expression to communicate with their parents in the beginning, and soon they begin to babble. Other parts of expressive language are motions or gestures (pointing to an item that he wants, raising his arms to be picked up) and vocalizations other than crying to get attention. First words usually appear around the end of the child’s first year, and around the end of the second year most toddlers start to form two-word sentences (“More milk!” “Ball go!”)
At his speech & language evaluation last month, Jonas was mildly delayed in both of these language development areas. He’s about one month behind in expressive language (which means, in his case, that though he is an avid babbler and definitely uses gestures to get our attention and make his needs known) and about two months behind in receptive language (which means that he could not indicate to the SLP that he recognized, or understood, some of the labeling words she used (ie, “Show me the bear”) or the requests she made).
So, how does sign language fit into the life of a hearing child? And what about a hearing child with language delays? I know that some people are wondering if using sign language with Jonas has contributed to his language delay, or if teaching him sign will inhibit his acquisition of spoken language.
Let’s take a quick look at the research. The National Institutes of Health funded a half-million dollar research project to study children who had followed the “Baby Sign” program compared to children from the same communities without exposure to sign language. The children were given standard language measures at 11, 15, 19, 24, 30, and 36 months. In addition, as many children as could be relocated at age 8 were assessed again with a standard intelligence test measure. This type of study (a longitudinal study, that follows the same cohort of subjects over time) is the gold standard in educational research. At 24 months old, the Baby Signs® babies were on average talking more like 27 or 28 month olds both in terms of vocabulary size and sentence length and construction. At 3 years of age, the children who had used sign language were at nearly a 4 year old level. And the final test measure of 8 year olds found that those who had been Baby Signs® babies scored an average of 12 points higher in IQ than their non-signing peers. (For more information, please click here.)
A good metaphor for the reasoning behind using baby signs is to think about the way babies get around. Most babies crawl before they walk. Crawling is certainly a less desirable way to get around, long term, but it’s an amazing feat of mobility when you’ve previously been stuck wherever Mommy put you down! Learning to crawl doesn’t take away your interest in walking – no baby thinks, “Well, now I’ve got a way to get from point A to point B, time to go learn about something else.” NO! Most babies become even more motivated in their efforts to cruise and then walk – they have discovered the amazing and tantalizing prospect of independent movement! The same thing goes for baby signing – in most homes, the amount of sign language that can be taught is finite, so it won’t work as a complete language system and it’s less desirable than verbal speech. But when a baby learns his first signs, it’s an amazing feat of connection and communication with those around him! Learning those signs doesn’t make a child give up on speech – it provides him with a developmentally “easier” way to communicate for the time being, but excites and enriches the child who will continue to strive toward a fuller language experience.