Language Development in Deaf Children

Gate Communications estimates that one in every 1,000 babies is born deaf. ASL University says that deaf children of deaf parents typically develop language in the same way hearing children do, progressing step by step, even though learning sign language instead of spoken language. They reach the same milestones at about the same ages. Deaf children of hearing parents, though, may develop language later than normal because, as the Reading Rockets website explains, their parents don’t model accessible language for them 2. In fact, their hearing loss is often not identified until they are about 1 year old.

Early Interactions with Caregivers

Hearing mothers and other caregivers of infants typically interact with their babies in ways that help them develop language. They echo the sounds their babies make. They take turns making cooing or babbling sounds with their babies, as if conversing. They praise and encourage their babies when they make sounds. Deaf mothers interact with their babies in similar ways. They sign to their babies, encourage their babies to try to form signs, and shape their babies’ hands to form signs.

Finger Babbling

Hearing babies typically begin babbling around 3 months of age, and according to ASL University, deaf babies do, too. Deaf babies “finger babble,” meaning they make deliberate and systematic gestures that, although they have no apparent meaning, differ from the random finger movements and clenched fists made by hearing babies. It’s the equivalent of the babbling sounds made by hearing babies at this age.

First Words

Hearing babies typically say their first word around 12 months of age, says Maureen Connolly of as reported by CNN Health. Deaf babies, according to ASL University, typically sign their first word earlier than that, around 8 months of age, and have a vocabulary of about 10 word signs by 12 months of age. The Mayo Clinic website explains that children usually don’t have the verbal skills to communicate orally at such a young age, but they usually can communicate simple concepts by sign at about 8 months of age, which is why some parents choose to teach their hearing babies some simple signs before they begin to speak.

When Deaf Children Acquire Language Late

The Reading Rockets website talks about what happens when deaf children acquire language later than usual, often because their parents don’t sign 2. These children don’t share their family’s native language. Even if their parents begin learning American sign language (ASL) or signed English, it takes time to become fluent. These children experience inconsistent communication from their parents in their early days, leading to language delays. Often, they only begin to develop good language skills when they start attending school, where they are exposed to fluent signers.