Should Children with Hearing Loss Learn a Second Language?

Today’s blog is written by Dr. Mark Guiberson, an associate professor of communication disorders at the University of Wyoming and a bilingual speech-language pathologist and by his students, who interviewed him for the blog. Dr. Guiberson has extensive experience working with deaf/hard of hearing children (DHH) from Spanish-speaking families and has completed research in the United States and Spain that describes spoken language bilingualism in DHH children.



  1. What made you interested in bilingualism and hearing loss?

“My first year as a speech-language pathologist I was recruited by an early-intervention program specifically to work with Spanish-speaking families and their DHH toddlers and preschoolers. I really enjoyed these families and understood their cultural perspectives as well as the developmental priorities they held for their children. As a bilingual therapist I also have strong beliefs regarding bilingualism, especially the idea that every child can become bilingual to the best of his or her ability. These experiences and beliefs drew me to working with this population.”


  1. Provide a summary of the two studies that you completed with the families of children with hearing loss in Spain.

“I should start by saying that I chose Spain for this research because it’s a setting where bilingualism is not uncommon. Because numerous regional languages are spoken in Spain, over half of Spanish adults are bilingual, and a large percentage of children are enrolled in bilingual schools. That being said, the first study described parents’ choices and decisions on communication modality for their children, with a focus on spoken language bilingualism. The second study described parents’ rating of language proficiency of DHH children, and compared monolingual children to bilingual children.”


  1. What did each study reveal?

“The first study revealed that decisions about raising children bilingually were influenced by parents’ beliefs about bilingualism and deafness, parents’ own bilingual status, and the support that parents received in raising their children to be bilingual. The second study revealed that parents’ ratings of the first language skills of bilingual children were slightly higher than the first language skills of monolinguals. This means that being bilingual does not come at the expense of first language development. Varying levels of second language exposure were observed in the bilingual children, and as a result varying levels of second language proficiency were observed. Just as in hearing children, the amount and quality of exposure to a second language influence how well developed that language will be. These findings add to a growing body of research showing that DHH children are capable of becoming bilingual if they are supported adequately.”


  1. How do the results from your studies relate to other research?

“These findings correspond with results from Crowe and McLeod’s systematic review describing bilingualism in DHH children. When bilingual children have rich experiences with languages, they develop those languages better. These results also parallel Bunta and Douglas’s study in Texas, showing that DHH bilinguals demonstrate first language skills that are comparable to DHH monolinguals. So, there is a growing body of research, including behavioral research, indicating that the language skills of DHH children are not suffering because they have been exposed to another language. DHH children are capable of becoming bilingual.”


  1. How do you think the issue of bilingualism affects children with hearing loss?

“Bilingualism is an important asset for children, especially in communities like Spain, where speaking more than one language is common or expected. I wrote about this topic in the May 2014 issue of Volta Voices withDale Sindell, the director of the Spanish parent group   At the same time, Bilingualism is also important for many DHH children in the United States. DHH children need equal access to the opportunities and benefits that come with being bilingual. These range from employment, to acceptance in communities that speak these second languages. Many times a second language is critically important to DHH children because use of the home language is needed in order for them to communicate with family and community members. The ability to communicate with these individuals results in stronger cultural identity and family cohesion. These children really do need both languages to effectively communicate in the their two cultures.”


  1. Should children with a hearing loss take a foreign language?

“Each case needs to be considered individually, but it is essential that families be provided with a full range of options for their children. Research is showing that bilingualism does not harm first language development, and that second language development will vary. This is likely related to both intrinsic variables (child’s abilities) as well as extrinsic variables (language exposure and usage opportunities). DHH children should definitely have the opportunity to develop a second language or learn a foreign language. It may be that learning a second language actually strengthens or shores up the linguistic and auditory systems, and allows for exercising these systems in a new way. When thinking about second language instruction for children who are DHH, I definitely recommend sheltered instruction teaching methods. This is instruction that includes a lot of visual support, natural repetition through previewing and reviewing, contextualized learning, and cooperative learning experiences.”


  1. Why do some people recommend one language for deaf or hard of hearing children?

“Some people prescribe a ‘one language approach’ out of fear that children will be confused by two languages. It may be that they believe in what has been called ‘language confusion,’ or the idea that children cannot separate out two languages adequately. However, we have no evidence that language confusion exists. In fact, we know that very young, typically developing children are capable of separating two languages, and children with a variety of disabilities are capable of handling and learning two languages. Language confusion is a myth or commonly held belief that can influence people’s decision making processes even though there is no evidence of this phenomenon. Also, parents may have the fear that ‘my child won’t do as well, because two languages will slow him down or trip him up.’ and in response, professionals will sometimes lead parents to a discussion of choosing a language (what is either explicitly stated or implied is that they had better choose English).

My work with DHH children and other research shows that parents do not need to choose a language, especially for children who come from two language backgrounds. For children from linguistic minority backgrounds, a great deal is at risk when we force parents to choose a language including communication, connectedness to family or family cohesion, and cultural identity. The loss of communication results in an inability for parents to parent and maintain a strong connection with their children, which is the most important thing that a parent can have. Communication is what enables parents to be lifelong teachers, mentors, and have strong relationships and attachment to their children.   The perspective needs to shift so that bilingualism is an asset, and seen as a means of providing DHH children access to important communities and opportunities.”


  1. What advice would you give parents of bilingual children with a hearing loss?

“The more exposure children have to both languages, in both structured and unstructured ways, the better each language will develop. Learning a second language should be fun, motivating, and natural. We shouldn’t get stuck with the image of a high school Spanish class or the idea that learning a second language is achieved through taking a language class, although that may be one of several ways to support second language development.

For families who speak another language, they might try to find natural times to use that language on a regular basis with their child. If children are learning a foreign language, finding motivating and interesting actives outside of the language class will support growth in that language.

My Spanish colleague Dale Sindell and the parent group developed the Allies in English program to increase children’s interest in learning English (Allies in English is described in detail in the May 2014 issue of Volta Voices). Children have instruction in Spanish at school, and many of them have English as a daily class. The Allies in English program is an after-school, once-a-week supplemental program in which an American university student volunteer comes to the house as an English-speaking buddy. There’s no tutoring involved in this program; instead the student volunteer and child identify topics or activities they are interested and they spend their time using English together while engaged in these activities. This is an unstructured and natural way to supplement English-language learning for these children, and provide cross-cultural learning. Supporting second language development through building on the child’s interests will result in increased motivation to learn that language and will enhance second language development.”


9. What is the clinical bottom line of this body of research?

“The clinical bottom line is that children who are deaf and hard of hearing are capable of becoming bilingual to the best of their ability when provided with adequate exposure and opportunities to support both languages. Practitioners need to provide families with a full range of options, including spoken language bilingualism because bilingualism allows DHH children equal access to important opportunities and allows for community membership.”



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.


  1. My son is wearing cochlear implant at 5 and now he is 8 and he is bilangual. How can i get in touch with dr Mark? Thanks

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