The benefits of sign language for deaf learners with language challenges

  • Annalene Van Staden
  • Gerhard Badenhorst
  • Elaine Ridge


This article argues the importance of allowing deaf children to acquire sign language from an early age. It demonstrates firstly that the critical/sensitive period hypothesis for language acquisition can be applied to specific language aspects of spoken language as well as sign languages (i.e. phonology, grammatical processing and syntax). This makes early diagnosis and early intervention of crucial importance. Moreover, research findings presented in this article demonstrate the advantage that sign language offers in the early years of a deaf child’s life by comparing the language development milestones of deaf learners exposed to sign language from birth to those of late-signers, orally trained deaf learners and hearing learners exposed to spoken language. The controversy over the best medium of instruction for deaf learners is briefly discussed, with emphasis placed on the possible value of bilingual-bicultural programmes to facilitate the development of deaf learners’ literacy skills. Finally, this paper concludes with a discussion of the implications/recommendations of sign language teaching and Deaf education in South Africa.

Author Biographies

Annalene Van Staden
Annalene van Staden is a lecturer in the Department of Psychology of Education at the Free State University. Her research interests lie within the field of Educational Psychology, especially focusing on the emotional and scholastic support of learners with special educational needs (support teaching). Other research projects she is currently involved in are the development of literacy intervention programmes for deaf learners, learners with dyslexia and learners with mental disabilities. Email:
Gerhard Badenhorst
Gerhard Badenhorst is a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology of Education at the Free State University since 1994. He is a registered Educational Psychologist and his field of interests, are behaviour disorders, relationship disturbances and social issues. He was the promoter of dr van Staden for her PhD studies that focused on deaf learners, with specific reference to their literacy challenges and the effect of psycho-social factors on their experience world. Email:
Elaine Ridge
Elaine Ridge, a former lecturer at the Department of Curriculum Studies at the University of Stellenbosch, was also the previous editor of Per Linguam (until the end of 2008). Her valuable contribution to this article is hereby acknowledged by the other two co-authors. Email: