Will Teaching Our Multilingual Child Sign Language Help Or Hinder?

by expert · 2 comments

Both my nephews learned baby sign language with their parents, and could sign simple things before they were one. They continued to use baby sign language even as they learned how to speak… it was in a way their “second language”.

My sister-in-law sent me the DVD about baby sign language and recommended it to me, assuring me that anything that I can do to help my toddler express her needs and wants will help us!

Do you think that baby sign language might help our daughter make the link between the different languages we use, since we will use the same signs for a given word, all the while saying the word some times in English, sometimes in Portuguese, some times in French? Or is it just going to make things more complicated given that she’ll have that extra piece of information to process?

Our daughter is not yet in school, she will go to day care in September just as she turns six months.

— Paula

Dear Paula,

The links that your daughter needs to make among the different languages used in your family will emerge through the use itself of those languages. Languages do not need to be taught to children in any formal way, whether the children are monolingual or multilingual.

Whether you use one language or more than one with your child, she will learn to associate each language with specific people and with the specific situations in which you use them. There is as much need to introduce a new language, signed or otherwise, to help you daughter sort out her other languages as to introduce a set way of playing with toys to help her play with toys.

Children are extremely resourceful. They require far less help from us parents than we perhaps would like to admit. They do not need extra help to learn what comes naturally to them through everyday interaction, and multilingual children need no extra help of any kind.

Your daughter will devise her own ways of expressing her wishes, through intonation (the melody of speech, which is necessarily present in any utterance), the baby words that she will come up with later on, and her own body language, which may or may not match the set ways described in commercial products.

You may want to let your child explore her own expressive resources on her own, and learn these from her, just like she will learn your own expressive resources from you.

Do feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.


Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, PhD, University of Manchester, UK, is a multilingual parent, educator and scholar, and the author of Multilinguals are...?, a book on myths and misconceptions about multilingualism. Her blog Being Multilingual deals with multilingualism at home, in school and in clinic. Her contact, and details on her work, are at: beingmultilingual.com.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jovana October 10, 2010 at 3:09 am

Early education sign language is amazing for me… I wonder if sign language is as big as a challenge as other languages for a child.


2 marge September 29, 2011 at 1:54 pm

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