When Do We Recommend that Children Learn Sign Language?

I presented workshops last week at the Arkansas Speech and Hearing Association and the Arkansas Academy of Audiology. I talked, as I usually do, about how to help children develop listening and spoken language skills. I spoke about how we take our lead from parents and how, since 95% of children with hearing loss are born to hearing parents, they usually choose listening and spoken language for their children. We know that for a child to develop good listening and spoken language skills the child has to have constant exposure to clear language. This means they need to have technology that lets them hear. We also know that for children to develop reading skills they need good language. The work of Hart and Risley has demonstrated that children whose parents talk to them more have both a higher number of words in their vocabulary and also have a higher IQ at age 3.

With today’s technology, almost every child can have access to sound. The better the access, the better the language, the better the literacy. We know that since the great majority of deaf children are born to hearing parents, they will communicate better with their children if they can communicate in their natural language – speech. If they have to learn American Sign Language, they will not be good language models.


So when is sign language appropriate?

Children who are identified early and fitted with technology early, and who have families who can provide good language stimulation will usually learn spoken language and succeed in mainstream schools. What about children who are identified late or who live in families that cannot provide good language stimulation? Well, these are two separate issues. For children identified late – the first question is how late, and, second, what is the degree of hearing loss?

If a  child is identified at age 2, I am not ready to give up. But if a child is identified at age 10, and if that child has had no hearing for 10 years, the chances of that child developing spoken language is limited. How about age 4, or 7? A four-year-old may develop some skills, but a 7-year-old will have a more difficult time. However, if the child has had some hearing during this time, they have likely had some language exposure and they may have an easier time learning once they are in a good therapy program.

If a child is not developing listening and spoken language skills, it is essential that we find some way to help them communicate and recommending sign language is appropriate. But teaching sign language only in school will limit the child’s language exposure. If we are teaching sign to a child, we need to teach sign to the entire family or the child will have limited language exposure.


Reading and sign language

It is important to understand the effect that sign language has on literacy. Sign language has  its own grammar, which is not standard English. So children are communicating in one language (ASL) and reading in another (English). The result is frequently very poor literacy skills. The average reading level of kids who graduate from high schools for the deaf is fourth grade. In today’s culture, that is very limiting.


Should we teach children identified early to sign?

The answer is that it depends on what the parents want for the child. If the parents want the child to develop listening and spoken language skills and to be mainstreamed, we need to teach the child a language she can use to communicate with peers and to learn in school. We know that many total communication programs do not encourage listening and children who graduate from those programs do not have good listening skills.  So if we want kids to talk, we need to teach them to listen.


If a child is not learning to listen

If a child is not learning to listen we need to provide them with an alternate communication system. But we need to be honest about the limits of teaching children to communicate using ASL. Signing Exact English (SEE) is a sign system that uses English grammatical ending and the same grammatical markers as standard English. If children learned SEE, there would be a better association with written language so literacy should be better. However, since there will be fewer people who know SEE they will still have limited language exposure. We could have an interpreter available all the time and that could provide improved exposure, but this is not easy if the children are playing with typical hearing kids.


What about learning sign language later?

Lots of people choose to learn sign language later and that is fine. Once spoken language is developed signing will be a useful second language. Many kids choose it as their foreign language. That is perfectly appropriate.


It’s complicated

I would never say that there is no condition when a child should learn to sign. But children will have more choices in life if they can listen and speak. It is important that when we talk to parents about different methodologies, we are honest about the effects on language development.

About Jane Madell

Jane Madell has a consulting practice in pediatric audiology. She is an audiologist, speech-language pathologist, and LSLS auditory verbal therapist, with a BA from Emerson College and an MA and PhD from the University of Wisconsin. Her 45+ years experience ranges from Deaf Nursery programs to positions at the League for the Hard of Hearing (Director), Long Island College Hospital, Downstate Medical Center, Beth Israel Medical Center/New York Eye and Ear Infirmary as director of the Hearing and Learning Center and Cochlear Implant Center. Jane has taught at the University of Tennessee, Columbia University, Downstate Medical School, and Albert Einstein Medical School, published 7 books, and written numerous books chapters and journal articles, and is a well known international lecturer.