UCL Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre


Early sign language exposure benefits deaf children

4 July 2012

According to new research, acquiring sign language from an early age in addition to spoken or written language has significant benefits for deaf children.

DCAL researchers Kearsy Cormier and David Vinson, with colleagues from La Trobe University and University of Crete, have examined the effects of age of sign language acquisition in deaf adults who use British Sign Language (BSL).

The study showed that adults who developed sign language skills from birth had better grammatical judgement in BSL. Adults who reported learning BSL from the ages of 2 to 8 years found it harder to acquire the same language skills. The research has highlighted that learning both a sign language and a spoken or written language will be the most beneficial for children to make the most of their linguistic abilities.

A bilingual approach can maximise linguistic and cognitive skills to overcome any delays or difficulties due to deafness. The advantages of early sign language exposure in particular remain clear even with rapid advances in hearing aids and cochlear implants.

Kearsy Cormier said

'Our research has shown that to give deaf children the best chance of successful language acquisition it is important that they are exposed to a sign language from a very young age. Evidence has shown it is not appropriate to wait until a child has succeeded or failed at acquiring spoken language before introducing a sign language because by that time it may be too late for any successful language acquisition. Since we already know bilingualism has a range of benefits, we would advocate that deaf children be given the opportunity to become bilingual in a signed and spoken/written language as early as possible.'

The research has implications for how parents of deaf children are supported to ensure their children have a bilingual start to life. This is particularly important as 90-95% of deaf children are born to hearing parents who have little or no experience of deafness or sign language.

The Study-First Language acquisition differs from second language acquisition in prelingually deaf signers: Evidence from sensitivity to grammaticality judgement in British Sign Language-was published in Cognition and is available on request.

For further information, contact:

Notes to editors

  1. Deafness Cognition and Language (DCAL) Research Centre is based at University College London. DCAL is a world-renowned centre of excellence for research on BSL. The centre brings together leading Deaf and hearing researchers in the fields of sign linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience. DCAL is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
  1. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.