American Sign Language Studied for Use as “Common Language” in Multilingual Preschools

Use of ASL expected to promote socialization and language development

Release Date: September 19, 2000

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Children in UB's Early Childhood Research Center are learning American Sign Language to see if it can be used as a common medium for communication among multilingual preschoolers.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Early Childhood Research Center (ECRC) at the University at Buffalo has begun a project to explore the use of American Sign Language (ASL) as a common medium of communication among multilingual/multicultural preschool children whose socialization and English-language development often are impeded by the language barrier.

A pilot study funded by the UB Graduate School of Education will introduce ASL to children enrolled for the current fall semester in the ECRC preschool, where 30 percent of the 2-5 year olds speak a total of 12 different native languages at home.

Elaine Bartkowiak, Ph.D., associate director of the ECRC, explains that researchers hypothesize that the introduction of ASL will lead to an increased use of linguistic symbols -- signs or words -- by children whose native language is not English, as well as by children diagnosed as developmentally delayed.

"If our research reveals that ASL leads to increased communication through the use of words and symbols," she says, "we can expect that it will help the children improve their ability to speak English. It also will facilitate their socialization by helping them to initiate play interactions otherwise made difficult by language restrictions.

"Communication between children and caregivers also often is impeded in preschool situations by the lack of a common language between the two," Bartkowiak says.

"This may be because a particular child speaks a language other than English at home or, in the case of an English-speaking child, that his or her language development cannot yet handle such communication."

If the UB research reveals that ASL leads to an increased use of signs or words, then it indicates that a critical element in a child's early development -- communication with caregivers -- can take place despite language barriers. It will prove that ASL can serve as the lingua franca in a multilingual/multicultural school environment.

This summer, the center's staff collected baseline data on the developmental levels and communication skills of children participating in the study. They also prepared training videos to be given to parents of children enrolled in the center programs for the fall semester to ensure that parents, teachers and children all use the same signs to communicate. Lee Dray, coordinator of the ASL program for the UB World Languages Institute, is serving as a consultant to the project.

Upon completion of the study, researchers will evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention by comparing outcomes for experimental and control groups.

If the results offer demonstrable evidence of increased communication and/or better socialization through the use of linguistic symbols, the project will be sent to several urban multilingual/multicultural preschool sites for further study.

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