As I have said before, it’s not the same old deafness. Kids born today have different choices then those born 40 or 50 years ago, even 20 years ago. However, there are still some people out there who do not want to offer a choice to parents. When Nyle diMarco, a deaf model/actor, won Dancing With The Stars, there was a lot of excitement, as there should be. It was exciting to see a young deaf man win. However, Nyle and many others are now using his celebrity to push sign language for all children with hearing loss.
As there always has been, there are people pushing for ASL for all children with hearing loss. Now there is a group (LEAD-K), which is pushing for sign language for all deaf kids and calling it language equality. There is a bill in the Rhode Island legislature which requires that deaf children be tested using ASL. That is a good idea for children whose parents have chosen ASL, but it is a terrible idea for children whose parents have chosen spoken language. It would be like testing me in Turkish; it is not my language. I would fail the test, and to have someone plan my future schooling based on a test in a language I do not speak is ridiculous. The LEAD-K group is targeting 23 states with bills like this one.
What is bilingualism?
For typical hearing children, bilingualism means speaking two different spoken languages. Sometimes this is because their parents or grandparents speak different languages, and sometimes because children learn a second language in school. A few years ago, bilingualism in the area of deafness meant that deaf kids learned both spoken language and ASL. Some called it Total Communication, others called it Bi-Bi – bilingual, bicultural. Actually, using both sign language and spoken language is bimodal, and not bilingual communication.
It became clear that Total Communication classrooms did not always work well. Most ended up being primarily signing classrooms even if the teacher spoke when she was signing, with a small amount of time spent on listening and speaking without sign. Many children educated in Total Communication classrooms did not develop good spoken language skills. Recent bilingual/bimodal education in deafness is defining bimodal as using ASL and reading English – not including spoken language.
Things have changed
There was a time, not that long ago, when listening/auditory information was not available for many deaf children. Technology did not provide enough auditory access to the child’s brain to make listening easy.
BUT THIS IS NO LONGER THE CASE.
With the technology available today, almost every deaf child canhave brain access to auditory information – sufficient to use hearing to learn and acquire knowledge. Is it easy? No. Technology needs to be implemented early (ideally within the first few months of life), families need to provide intensive and enriched language stimulation, and auditory-based therapy needs to be available to help families learn to provide good language and literacy stimulation. There is a lot of research which demonstrates that children who are fit with technology early and receive appropriate therapy have language equal to their hearing peers at kindergarten. (See the LOCHI studies.)
Why should children learn spoken language?
The obvious reason is that children who speak have different choices than children who do not. An article in the Wall Street Journal reported that adults who were not English speakers earned significantly less in their lives than those who spoke English. The article was specifically about foreign language speakers but the analogy is clear.
Less than 1% of the population understands ASL, limiting communication transactions. It is absolutely fine to limit one’s social life to people who communicate the way you do, but for those who want to work and shop in a spoken language environment, being able to speak can make a difference.
Learning spoken language – seven important points
- 95% of deaf children are born to hearing parents. Their natural language is spoken language. For a child to be part of her family group she needs to be able to communicate with her family.
- There is a time limit on when we can develop auditory neural pathways and avoid auditory deprivation. Work by Sharma, and others has demonstrated that there are critical periods for developing the auditory brain. Children who do not develop auditory cognitive pathways and learn to listen within the first few years of life, do not get the opportunity to do so later due to a reduction in neural plasticity.
- Work by Geers and others has demonstrated that children who use spoken language have better language and literacy skills than children who use ASL.
- More than 80% of children with hearing loss are successfully mainstreamed in public schools. They use spoken language. Children who use ASL certainly may attend a mainstream school with an interpreter, but they will have difficulty socializing with peers if they need to use an interpreter for social interactions.
- We learn language by exposure and practice. We ask parents to speak the language they know best. Parents who speak English should speak English to their child. Parents who speak Spanish should speak Spanish to their child. In this way, children will be exposed to a rich language environment. We learned this years ago when we told primarily Spanish speaking parents to speak English to their children so the children would know English when they got to school. However, the children came to school with limited English knowledge because their language exposure was limited. The work of Hart and Risley (1995) has clearly shown that children’s IQ and vocabulary at age 3 years is directly related to how many words they hear in a day. If a parent’s lack of communication skills limits what they can “say” to their child, the child will have limited language.
- Parents who do not know sign language well cannot provide a rich language environment for their child. There may be therapists or teachers who know sign well, but how many hours a day or a week will the child be exposed to rich language? For children to succeed, they need a rich language exposure all day, every day.
- Once a child knows one spoken language well, they can learn another language. Once a child has a good spoken language base, they can easily add ASL and float between the deaf and hearing worlds if they so choose. The only way a child can later have a real choice about talking and/or signing, is if the brain pathways for spoken language are developed within the first few years of life. Signing can be learned later in life; talking cannot.
Can a child learn spoken language and ASL at the same time?
Unfortunately not. If children could successfully learn an auditory and visual language (bimodal) at the same time, that would be an easy solution to the problem. There is enough evidence to convince me that it is not possible to successfully do both at the same time. The two languages have different grammars. Tense is expressed differently, and word order is different. Children can learn both, but not together. We know that.
Is there anything wrong with learning ASL?
Absolutely not. Many kids with hearing loss choose to learn sign language as they get older. Some at middle school, some at high school and some later. They are then bimodal and can easily be part of both the hearing and deaf worlds. That is fine and an individual choice. On the other hand, many other kids with hearing loss do not learn sign language, and do not feel the need to do so — also fine and also individual choice.
Time is so critical
I have known hundreds and hundreds of deaf kids in 50 years of being a pediatric audiologist. I want to tell you about two stories that made a significant impact on me.
The first incident concerned when a family with a 17 year old who came for a cochlear implant evaluation. The family had chosen sign language, and their daughter had been in ASL schools for the deaf all her life. She had not worn hearing aids since she was 2 years old, and she did not have any spoken language skills. She had just been diagnosed with a disorder that was making her blind quickly, and they wanted to know if she could have a cochlear implant. Specifically, the family wanted to know if the child would be able to hear on the phone with the CI. She could, of course, have a CI but, unfortunately, she would not likely be able to hear on the phone or even to have open set speech understanding. I know this because of my experience with older kids who were primarily signers getting CI’s as will as numbers published research articles. If children had not developed the auditory centers of the brain through early use of technology and listening practice, then they might have sound awareness with the CI, but not have speech understanding. It was very difficult to tell this family that their daughter likely would not hear well with a CI, because she was long past times of effective auditory neural plasticity.
The second was an experience I had at an EDHI conference. There was a discussion about why to teach kids to listen and speak. There was a lot of yelling from people with different viewpoints. A mom said, in a very angry voice, that she had a very bright son who was graduating from college with a degree in engineering; she knew he was going to have difficulty finding a job because he could not speak and would require an interpreter. I certainly understood her frustration, and in a perfect world this should not be a problem, but with two equal candidates for the job, it is. She was, in fact, making a case, for teaching children spoken language.
The speaking/ASL argument is likely going to go on for many, many years. Likely, past the time when I am no longer in the field. We can all argue as much as we like, but we need to remember what and who is at risk here. We are talking about the lives of children with hearing loss. We are talking about their futures. Many adults who only sign, and who do not speak, work successfully in the deaf community. Many fewer work outside of the deaf community. Those who speak have many more choices for work and community engagement. I am not suggesting that children never sign; only that they learn to listen and talk first when their brain has the neuro-physiological capacity to develop spoken language.