A Good Start: Visual Conversations with Deaf and Hard of Hearing Babies and Toddlers

By ASL, Early ASL Acquisition, Early Intervention, Early Language Development, Information, Research

Like all babies, Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH) babies learn language best in natural situations with people who care about them and know them. All parents have natural instincts about how to interact with their babies, how to show them love, and how to communicate, even before babies can understand and use language.

Deaf parents emphasize some communication behaviours more than most hearing parents, and these behaviours are very helpful for Deaf and HH babies. When hearing parents include these behaviours with their Deaf and HoH babies, babies pay attention better and learn language earlier.

Needs: Developing strong, positive bonds with parents and caregivers is crucial for babies, and this happens naturally when parents respond to their baby’s needs. Smiles, gentle touches, and games like peek-a-boo strengthen bonds between babies and parents and are a natural way to communicate.

Senses: Hearing parents naturally raise the pitch of their voices and use a lot of rhythm and a sing-song way of speaking when talking to babies. They also gesture, matching their hand movements with word rhythms, use exaggerated, happy facial expressions. They also touch their babies often by stroking the baby’s face, arms, and legs, and sometimes make “bicycle” movements with the baby’s legs. All of these behaviours are important because they communicate with babies using more than one sense: vision, sound, touch. All of these behaviours are important for Deaf and HoH babies too: they can receive messages through senses other than hearing.

Deaf parents don’t use speech as much as hearing parents, but they emphasize the other senses more. They repeat signed messages and make the movements “dance” with rhythm. They stroke and touch their babies more often and frequently make signs on the baby’s body. For example, one Deaf mother of a three-month old signed “Pretty baby” by making the sign “pretty” on the baby’s face while smiling and watching her baby, smiling even brighter when the baby smiled back.

Babies love these exaggerated expressions: they watch, imitate, smile, and laugh. Exaggerated, positive gestures and signs make Mommy interesting to watch, and baby learns that it is pleasant and important to watch Mommy.

If hearing parents include these behaviours with their Deaf and HoH babies, their communication will be more interesting and it will be easier to keep baby’s attention.


Notice where baby looks and talk about it: Babies are more interested in communicating when they decide the “topic.” Language learning happens better when parents sign/talk about an object or activity that baby is interested in. Babies and children whose mothers respond to or follow their interests develop language faster than those whose mothers change the topic frequently, whether the baby is Deaf, HoH, or hearing.

For example, if baby picks up a toy truck, it’s better to sign/say, “Oh, a truck. You want to play with the truck?” rather than, “Let’s play with this doll instead.”

Responding to baby is natural when parents are encouraged to simply play and communicate, not act as “teachers.” Changing topics or redirecting the conversation is effective sometimes with older children, but not with babies and toddlers.

Pay attention to arm, leg, and body movements: When playing with and responding to your baby, it’s important to notice their movements. Researchers have noticed that Deaf and HoH babies move their arms and legs more often than hearing babies. One hearing mother thought her baby was hyperactive, but a Deaf mother thought her baby was trying to sign. Regardless, it’s important to respond to your baby as if their movements are meaningful so that your baby understands they have a way to communicate and get your attention.

Respect baby’s right to stop playing or communicating: Just like adults, babies need “down time.” When tired or over-excited, babies will often look away from the communication and lose their happy expression. The best response is to wait quietly for a short time to see if baby restarts the communication.

HELP BABY SEE THE COMMUNICATION AND LANGUAGE THAT YOU USE Move your hand or body so that baby can see your communication while looking at a toy or activity: In their early months, babies spend a lot of time watching the person communicating/playing with them. By 5-6 months, most babies become interested in objects, exploring them by looking at and moving them, and babies spend less time looking directly at the people communicating with them. For Deaf and HoH babies, this time is a special challenge because they need to see communication in order to understand.

One good strategy with young babies is to move your hands to sign or gesture on or near something that baby is looking at. That way, baby can see your communication without having to look away from the object or activity.

If babies look up at their mother after she has signed near the object, Deaf mothers make the sign again. This way, baby learns to switch their attention from the object, to Mommy, to the object again. However, this skill can take time for babies to develop, sometimes not until 13 months or later.

Move the object in front of baby, then in front of your face – when baby can see both, communicate: Deaf mothers do this often. It works best when Mommy moves an object Mommy and baby have been playing with together, because Mommy can use language that responds to the baby’s interests.

Tap on the object a few times before communicating about it, then show the sign for the object (e.g. “ball”), then tap on it again to allow the child to connect the object with the sign.

Tap on baby to say “Look at me”: Deaf mothers gently tap or pat their baby’s shoulders, arms, and legs with a flat hand to signal to baby to look up for communication. Babies whose mothers use it often had better sign language skills at 18 months and two years of age.

However, babies don’t understand this signal at first: they have to learn that it means, “Look at me.” Deaf mothers usually combine tapping with other communication strategies. For example, one mother tapped her baby’s shoulder, then rubbed baby’s leg, placed an object in front of baby and then near her face while tapping baby’s shoulder again. This baby learnt the meaning of tapping before 18 months and then would look up quickly when lightly tapped.

It can be difficult to know how to use tapping with an individual baby. Some babies seem resistant, while others respond quickly. Be sensitive to your baby’s personality. There are no rules, so hearing mothers can benefit from seeing how Deaf adults use it with babies.

Relax and wait for baby to respond on her own: Wait, then quickly sign or say something to your baby. This can require patience because some babies don’t often look up. But if Mommy communicates in an interesting and responsive way when baby does look up, it encourages baby to do it more in the future.


When baby shows they are beginning to understand language, start using short sentences, plus pointing at/tapping objects: Deaf and hearing parents both do the same thing: when baby begins to show signs of understanding language, parents naturally begin to use simple sentences that model language for their children. Eventually begin to use longer sentences as baby understands more and produces more language herself.

Repeat words, signs, short sentences, and tap objects and point to activities: This gives baby several chances to notice the signs and recognize language patterns.

You can use fingerspelling: Although it seems difficult, Deaf parents use fingerspelling, even with babies. Occasional short words can be the first step to learning about letters and can later help with learning to read.

CONCLUSION Hearing parents naturally communicate in ways that are as effective for Deaf babies as hearing babies. However, Deaf parents emphasize some strategies that are really helpful for Deaf and HoH babies. When hearing parents add these strategies, they give babies a strong start on language learning.

Semilingualism and Monolingualism

By ASL, Bilingual, Information, Research

What does monolingualism mean?

Being monolingual means knowing one language. Many people who grow up in Canada may be monolingual and know only English or French. In contrast, many Deaf Canadians may be bilingual because they use two or more languages, for instance, they might use ASL and the written form of English.

What does semilingualism mean?

In order to become fluently bilingual, with strong language skills in two languages, a child must have early access to a first language or “mother tongue”, preferably from birth. When children are given late, infrequent or inadequate exposure to two or more languages, they may become semilingual rather than bilingual. When a child is semilingual they seem to not have a full grasp of any language, and tend to mix the vocabulary, grammar and structure of the two languages together so that the child may not be fully able to express themselves in any language. In order to reap the benefits of being bilingual, a child must be given the opportunity to develop a strong first language.

What does semilingualism mean for Deaf children?

Since more than 90% of Deaf children are born into hearing families who may not know ASL, it is crucial for parents to make the extra effort so that Deaf children are exposed to a signed language (ASL) as early as possible in order to have a strong first language that is visual and 100% accessible. By being given frequent and consistent exposure to ASL through communication with family members, videos, and socializing with other Deaf children, a first language can develop which is the first step to developing strong language and critical thinking skills. By having ASL as a first language, it will be easier to acquire English because the child already has knowledge of language structure and has the ability to connect ideas. Without frequent exposure to ASL and with only limited access to English (since the child does not have full access to spoken English), the child is in danger of never fully acquiring either ASL or English and becoming semilingual. By making the effort to expose your child to ASL as frequently and as early as possible, your child can thrive and learn how to communicate in two languages- ASL and English.

The Benefits of Bilingualism

By ASL, Bilingual, Bilingual Education, Deaf Culture, Early ASL Acquisition, Early Intervention, Early Language Development, Information, Research

The Benefits of Bilingualism: Impacts on Language and Cognitive Development:

Bilingualism can be briefly defined as someone who regularly uses two languages. According to researcher Franḉois Grosjean (who studies American Sign Language cognitive processing), bilingualism is the norm throughout most of the world. The proficiency levels between the two languages can vary throughout someone’s lifetime based on how much they use the language.

Many Deaf people are fluent in a signed language as well as a spoken or written form of a spoken language; because of this, it is probable that bilingualism is more common with Deaf individuals than hearing individuals. Proficiency in the two languages depends on the level of proficiency needed for the context (for example, is the language used solely at home or solely at school? This will result in different vocabulary). Proficiency will also depend on when the language was acquired.

Learning two languages is a very natural process for children, and it does not result in or cause cognitive or linguistic delays. A child learning two languages is able to achieve all the same milestones as a child who is learning only one language – everything from babbling to acquiring grammatical structures. This includes children who are learning American Sign Language (ASL) and English.

The most obvious benefit of being bilingual is the ability to communicate in two languages. It is beneficial to learn these two languages as early as possible in your life. Vocabulary is acquired easier and more quickly in both languages for people who are bilingual. In addition, managing two languages has cognitive benefits such as a better ability to pay attention, better control of impulses, better conflict resolution skills, and increased working memory.

Deaf children can greatly benefit from going to a bilingual school because if they have high proficiency in ASL, they may also have high proficiency in English and improved academic achievement. By exposing Deaf children to ASL, they are able to develop skills such as critical thinking and complex reasoning which can help their second language literacy development.

It is beneficial to use ASL when your Deaf child is present, not only when you are directly communicating with them. This means exposure to different types of conversations such as arguments, small talk, and communication between different age groups. Using English with your Deaf child by reading books and translating them into ASL shows that communication can be in both languages and helps them to understand how both languages work.

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Common Errors by Young Children Acquiring a Signed Language

By ASL, Bilingual, Bilingual Education, Early ASL Acquisition, Early Language Development, Information, Research

Adam Stone explains that no matter what language a child is learning, be it spoken or signed, they will make mistakes. Here, Adam goes into detail about three common mistakes children make while learning a signed language, and rest assured, these are all part of the normal language acquisition process.

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Maximizing Language Acquisition: ASL and Spoken English

By ASL, Bilingual, Bilingual Education, Early ASL Acquisition, Early Intervention, Early Language Development, Information, Research No Comments

This webcast provides an evidence-based rationale for supporting language acquisition in both American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken English for young children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Experienced professionals in deaf education discuss the important ingredients essential to learning language as well as common misconceptions that tend to drive language and communication practices. Designed for professionals involved in early intervention, this webcast highlights how evidence points to use of an ASL and spoken English bilingual approach (sometimes referred to as a bimodal bilingual approach) as beneficial for young children who are deaf or hard of hearing. Accompanying the webcast is a comprehensive reference list to support the information shared.

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