Bilingualism: ASL and English


For Bilingual learners in general, the task of language acquisition is very different than that of monolingual speakers. Bilingual speakers of spoken languages harbor certain advantages. However, sign language is mostly grounded in motor movement and gesture of the hands so bilingual speakers of ASL and English have different advantages than those of bilingual speakers of two spoken languages.

Motor Development, Gesture and ASL

Gesture relates to ASL because it involves the movement of the hands to create meaning. The relationship between the two is important in understanding the advantages that learning ASL provides for learners of English. There has been extensive research conducted on language and gesture. In adults, language and gesture seem to be deeply intertwined in that gesture assists with communicating (Mayberry & Nicoladis, 2000). Gesture acts to enhance spoken language. Once babies gain control of motor movements in their hands and arms, they can start using sign language. Some monolingual parents even teach their babies sign language before they speak their first words.

The development of ASL before or at the same time as spoken English can enhance motor development. Research has been conducted on the link between motor development and speech and it is hypothesized that speech develops after the onset of motor development (Iverson, 2010) . Motor development in the arms and hands helps with the development of rhythmic babbling (Meier et al,2008) . The simultaneous learning of ASL and English has an effect on the overall motor development of young children.

Bilingual Advantages

There are also many advantages that go along with learning two languages at once. Research has shown that being bilingual enhances creativity and later academic development. Bilingual children also have higher metalinguistic awareness which means that they have a better understanding of the system of language (Cummins,1979). Bilingualism also provides professional advantages in the long run.


Bilingual language learners have the potential to be disadvantaged because children must hit certain thresholds of linguistic competence to avoid cognitive disadvantages. For children learning ASL and English, they not only have to be aware of the sounds around them and be able to segment and detect speech, but they also must be able to make sense of the hand motions and segment the movement sequences in ASL.

Social Consequences

Since there is such a large deaf community in the United States, a child who is learning sign language, perhaps from their parents, and then learning English at school could be looked down upon by the Deaf community (Stewart et al.,1988). The Deaf culture is often not as tolerating of bilingual ASL and English speakers as English speakers are of the same group.


  • Cummins, James. (1979). Linguistic interdependence and the education development of bilingual children. Review of Educational Research 49(2).
  • Iverson, Jana M. (2010). Developing language in a developing body: the relationship between motor development and language development. Journal of Child Language 37(2). Retrieved from
  • Mayberry, Rachel I. & Nicoladis, Elena. (2000). Gesture reflects language development: evidence from bilingual children. Current Directions in Psychological Science 9(6).
  • Meier, Richard P., Mauk, C.E., Cheek, A., & Moreland, C.J. (2008). The form of children’s early signs: iconic or motoric determinants? Language Learning and Development 4(1).
  • Stewart, David A. & Akamatsu, C. Tane. (1988). The coming of age of american sign language. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 19(3).