Why We Generally Don’t Recommend Sign Language

February 8, 2013 by - 6 Comments

Why We Generally Don’t Recommend Sign Language
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We are big fans of using multimodal communication, supplementing natural speech with communication books, SGDs, AAC apps, gestures, and manual signs. Manual signs, yes. Sign language? Not necessarily. Here’s why.
Why We Generally Don’t Recommend Sign Language
Sign languages, like ASL, BSL, or Auslan, are fully developed languages with unique morpho-syntactic features. They aren’t just visual forms of spoken languages. Let’s use an analogy. You may have had some experience with translating a sentence from one language into another when travelling (e.g., English to Spanish). It would be great if we could take each individual word in an English sentence, substitute the Spanish word, and end up with a grammatically correct Spanish sentence. It just doesn’t work that way. That approach leaves us with poorly formed sentences, incorrect word forms, and confusing results. When you use a different language, you have to adopt the morphology and syntax of that language. So, to use sign language with the AAC population is to invite confusion. Think of it this way. If I sign a sentence using sign language and say the sentence aloud as I am signing the learner will be hearing one thing and seeing something else. In a sentence like “Later we’re going to see my friend,” I may be saying ‘friend,’ for example, while signing ‘later.’ For the AAC population, which generally has communication problems for reasons other than deafness, this doesn’t make sense. What they need is a visual-gestural way of seeing what they are hearing. That kind of redundancy helps the learner make connections. So, if not sign language, then what?

We generally opt for one of these two choices: formal sign systems or using selected manual signs in English word order.

We are proponents of using sign systems, such as Signed English, Signing Exact English, or Makaton, when that makes sense. In our clinical work, we frequently use key word signing, in which words from ASL are signed as we speak our sentences aloud in English. The approach of using manually coded English (MCE) or key word signing gives us the best of both worlds and allows us to use manual signs to support language.

This video demonstrates the differences between four different forms of signing common in the US. 

So, when we see an IEP or report recommending the use of sign language for a non-deaf AAC client, it’s likely that what the SLP really meant was some form of MCE. It’s something you’d want to check out, of course, and determine whether the rationale makes sense to you. Otherwise, MCE is probably the way to go.

If the child is Deaf and will be interacting with the Deaf community, then we would certainly consider recommending a true sign language. Likewise, if the child is hearing but born to Deaf parents. These are big decisions for families and they look to us for guidance. It’s important that we can clearly articulate the benefits and drawbacks of each approach so that they can make informed decisions.

A multimodal approach that includes signed communication is a good fit for a large percentage of the AAC learners with whom we work. But you’ll rarely find the term ‘sign language’ in our reports or conversation for the reasons we put forth in this post. It isn’t the end of the world to use ‘sign language’ when you really mean ‘key word signing’ or ‘MCE,’ but, hey, communication is our business. It’s good for us, the language experts, to be accurate in our verbal expression.

If you are using signed communication in your AAC work, please leave us a comment to tell us how that’s going. We love hearing from and learning alongside our prAACtical friends.

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This post was written by Carole Zangari


  • Kristy says:

    Dr Zangari,
    I think it’s tricky to over generalize the term sign language as meaning ASL … like you mentioned sign language has its place as an AAC approach and is found successful in a variety of occasions for different reasons. It’s the number one go-to in the Early Intervention setting to start that motor planning abilities in children to start utilizing their oral motor motor planning abilities …
    It’s used for various children with different special needs, but to say it’s not recommended is troublesome. Understandably ASL may not be recommended but the signs from ASL used in different sign languages are certainly recommended frequently. The exact language (syntactical/grammatical, pragmatic, etc.) of ASL is not necessarily practical for some children with different special needs but the term ‘sign language’ – I have found to be used as the umbrella term and not necessary to mean ASL. Therefore, is highly recommended as a form of communication.


    • Carole Zangari Carole Zangari says:

      There is no doubt that the use of manual signs is a highly beneficial strategy (and one that we use often), but we’ve run into a number of situations where the use of the term ‘sign language’ has created real problems. Some of the most distressing situations occurred when hearing students with AAC needs were placed into classes for Deaf children because team members or parents perceived their needs for sign language to be the same. In the context of recommendations for individual students, the use of more specific terms, like SEE, Signing Exact English, MCE, etc., can help us articulate their specific needs and reduce the possibility of misunderstandings.

  • Jennifer Schroeder says:

    This is a great post, with a great video to showcase your points. I have worked as an intensive needs teacher for 13 years. Many of my students use AAC or total communication. I have worked with students in the public school setting and also in a Deaf school. I couldn’t agree more with your comments. I never use “sign language” or “ASL” when making a recommendation or report; I use total communication or list specific signs words to start with. Thanks for the post.

  • Mary-Louise says:

    Thank you Carole. I specialise in working with children with Angelman syndrome and while many children can learn to sign some Key Word signs they require a whole language intervention from infancy given that they have complex communication needs from infancy. Aided Language Stimulation using a form of AAC that they can learn to use expressively to convey a whole range of things must be implemented – signing ‘mum’ and ‘more’ and ‘all done’ isn’t enough. True sign languages like Auslan and ASL are beautiful languages with grammar, inflection, and personality. To limit a child to Key Word signs is to deny them these parts of language.

    I also have real issue with people who only use key word signing and speech with children with significant CVI or other sensory processing issues. I find that many of the children that I work with are still learning to integrate senses and can still only look or listen at one time – when someone is in front of them signing and talking the visual input of someone waving hands around is all consuming and the child’s hearing shuts down and they miss everything or they turn away in order to shut out the visual information and then they get in trouble for not attending.

    I also think we need to step up and be frank with early intervention practitioners – if you have a child who has complex communication needs, requires AAC, has significant disabilities and is unable to move his or her hands and arms then you have no right to implement a communication intervention like signing with that child. That child has no chance of using it expressively from the outset. Yes, they may gain motor skills and you can introduce signs as you go but that child deserves you to communicate to him or her in a way that he can actually have some success communicating back to you. This needs to happen right from the start of intervention.

    Just my two cents.


    • Carole Zangari Carole Zangari says:

      Some good points, Mary-Louise. I was just talking with an SLP the other day who had done some key word signing and was moving on to also learn form of MCE so that she could build more complex linguistic forms, highlight morphological endings, etc. It seems like there was more of an emphasis on learning sign systems and languages before we had such an array of low/high tech AAC options. Hope we are not losing sight of all that they have to offer. Thanks for your comments!

  • Meredith F. Dunham says:

    Is there any research in regards to children who are using high-tech AAC and ASL at the same time? Would it be similar to a child learning English and Spanish at the same time and becoming Bilingual?

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