The importance of early language
Let's put aside questions about hearing for a moment and think about your baby's brain.
All infants are born with amazing brains that are ready to start figuring out language patterns. Babies spend their first year gathering information about their native language from what they perceive around them, first from family members and then from the wider world.
It turns out that infant brains do not care whether that early language is spoken or signed (Hall, Hall & Caselli, 2019). What infants need is experience with the structure of language. That experience allows their brains to develop and build the complicated neural structures that all humans need to use language. To read in more depth about the neural development of infants, check out Dr. Patricia Kuhl's 2010 article on this topic.
Whatever choices you make for your deaf child, find ways to give them as much language experience as possible as early as possible. From their very first minutes, babies are looking for language. Make their environment full of visual language and give them the foundation they need for natural language acquisition.
Here are some important facts about the baby brain:
Language is not a single skill, but many different skills that develop in order, based on a series of critical periods. Critical periods are times when the brain is ready for a specific type of experience. They are controlled by a release of neurotransmitters that tell the brain to get ready for new information. If we do not get the right experience at the right time, we change the way that part of our brain functions for the rest of our lives. To read more, check out Werker and Hensch (2015).
Babies’ brains are already in a critical period for language by the time they are born. A brand new baby can tell the difference between their mother's native language and a different language, and even between two unknown languages (Nazzi, Bertoncini & Mehler 1998). This fact shows us that infants are extremely sensitive to natural language information and ready to start acquiring it right away.
Babies’ brains work like computers. They collect information from the world around them and use statistics to figure out what sorts of patterns their language follows (see Kuhl, 2007 for an overview). But in order to do this, they need a lot of experience with language. If they do not experience enough language, they cannot find the patterns within.
MYTH: Young babies are not paying attention to language yet, so it is fine to wait for a while before worrying about language access.
By the time babies are born, they are already tuned in to language and seeking patterns.
The infant's brain uses early language experience to develop the structure needed to acquire their native language quickly and efficiently.
Hearing babies and deaf babies both recognize sign language as useful language information (Krentz & Corina, 2008), and their brains can extract the patterns from sign languages to develop a strong language foundation.
Babies need the first year of life to see and understand language. Even though they are not producing much yet, their brains need the information that they get from the language around them.
MYTH: Using sign language will make it harder for my child to learn speech or written English later.
All research so far has shown that a strong language foundation leads to more success with later language development, including speech (Hall, Hall & Caselli, 2019)
Bilingualism is natural and common for most of the world. Many researchers believe bilingualism is beneficial to cognitive development. There is no reason to think a deaf child cannot acquire more than one language successfully.
Deaf children with early sign language experience often have better English literacy than deaf children who use spoken language alone. Early experience with sign language allows children to develop phonological awareness, which helps with later English reading skills (McQuarrie & Abbott, 2013).
Language success depends on the infant's brain getting full access to complex language. Once infants have a solid language foundation, they can much more easily learn any language.