The Spoken Language vs ASL Debate is Back

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.


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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Work by Geers and others has demonstrated that children who use spoken language have better language and literacy skills than children who use ASL.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.


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 5 books, and written numerous books chapters and journal articles, and is a well known international lecturer.

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Signing is a perfect way to get a language base for any child. fact: it has been proven to occur well before spoken language Fact: technology fails Fact: implanting children has killed dozens Fact: recall of these devices is harmful, painful and causes loss of developmental time Fact: many children have paralysis and other disfiguring, tragic complications from implants Fact: people who sign can have deep conversation under water, in crowded noisy places, across the room, an acre away, where there is sight, there can be communication. Fact: many of us in our senior years will be deaf, not candidates… Read more »

Nina Endler

Thank you, Storme. – Nina Endler

Miss Kat's Mom

Did you bother to even read the article or just start writing your comment from the title? You have not addressed a single point she talked about.


Signing words, rather than language is learned before spoken language, which is why parents sometimes use Baby Signs for their hearing children and deaf children…these are not truly ASL, since they are words. They are beneficial for both hearing and deaf babies if parents decide to go that route. Of course, all technology fail. Including hearing aids, iPhones, video relay service, and more. Let’s choose not to use iPhones, hearing aids, or watch TV or drive a car, because they are prone to failure, right? Implanting children has killed dozens, is an exaggeration. The only record we have are few… Read more »

Nina Endler

This makes me so sad. It’s so full of lies and misinformation, starting with the first paragraph. It’s not spoken English versus ASL. That’s very old. It’s oral-only versus both-and. It’s very different now. And it’s really unfortunate that you’re pushing this logical fallacy that never should have happened in the first place. Jane, for you to say that we cannot learn spoken language and ASL at the same time is the present-day version of saying “deaf can’t.” Given the length of your time in the field, I am so sorry to read that you are saying “deaf can’t.” Deaf… Read more »


Excellent comment Nina. I am an SLP who serves bi or multi-lingual children. It is recommended that children acquire languages simultaneously from as early as possible. Waiting until one language is proficient before beginning to learn another is a very old school thought that has been shown to leave them with gaps in knowledge and often thicker accents depending on the age of acquisition. I cannot imagine that our brain couldn’t sort out the various grammars between spoken English and ASL, as the writer states, if we have children appropriately (and in many cases effortlessly might I add) acquiring Mandarin… Read more »


There are so many inaccurate statements in this Mandell statement that it was impossible to count all the clangers. First, many are outdated and based on assumptions common to uninitiated hearing people with little understanding of the realities of growing up with differences in hearing. Second, there is little information that was obtained directly from the very people she talks about, including thousands of practicing Deaf professionals. Third, there is no evidence of appreciation of the strengths and affirming qualities of a community with cultural characteristics equal to any other proud ethnic group. Fourth, talking about a people one is… Read more »


Well said Ms Madell. It doesn’t surprise me that you get attacked by the Deaf, especially those here who want to hold children back from communicating with the rest of the world


Thank you, Jane Madell. Your research, education and extensive experience with the latest technology for the deaf make you a credible source of information for parents of deaf children. My own teenage daughter with hearing loss validates all that you said. ASL is not necessary, and people should not be condemned for not choosing to use it with their child. You can communicate with your profoundly deaf child using listening and spoken language alone along with today’s technology and your child can achieve age-appropriate speech and language. ASL is an option, of course, but no one should be made to… Read more »


I agree!! :) I had never exposed to ASL while growing up as a child.. My family and relatives are all hearing….My mom chose Cued Speech over ASL… I was more happier at hearing School with Cued Speech Program than School For The Deaf. ..I get it why…I do not feel quilty for not using ASL…. I have no grudge against my mother for not choosing ASL for me.. I am proud being non-Deaf Cultured person… Now I have CI! It helps me to hear more than my previous hearing aids… I am happy… :)


This argument is age old going back to 135 years. The people who are angry with you are former students of speaking and listening aka oralism. LEADK is about language acquisition accountability, not ASL and/or English. Your usage of “or” is divisive. LEADK is about making so not child gets left behind with education due to lack of access to language acquisition, no matter which language their parents choose. This is called language acquisition accountability to ensure all Deaf children are kindergarten really, not about ASL vs English. Stating ASL and English is in the same sentence not bilingualism. It… Read more »


The old days of oralism and LSL are not the same. LSL would have been impossible to use back then due to the lack of technology that brings up hearing level where it is needed for LSL, for many people.

Sofia Kolotourou

I am a profoundly deaf woman from Greece. I lost my hearing at age 4 and I am 43 years old now. I speak orally all my life. I am a doctor (pathology) in my country. I am also president of an organization who support oral deaf people. I never learn sign language because I don’t need this. I can communicate by lip reading. I agree with every word of this article. I want to translate this in Greek language and discuss about it with other Greek deaf people. Thank you!

Hartmut Teuber

Do you know Dr Chrisostomus Papaspyros? He was also brought up orally, successfully in the judgement of oralists, obtained a doctorate in chemistry in your country. But he discovered the meaning of being Deaf and the horrendous history of oppression against the whole Deaf humanity from oralism. He then obtained another doctorate in linguistics in Germany. He will disagree with you vociferously. You fail to consider the wide effects of oralism against humanity, the oppression of Deaf people. Yourself like Papaspyros and myself belong to the high 10% of the deaf population who will succeed acquiring a spoken language, no… Read more »

michael gallagher

“With the technology available today, almost every deaf child canhave brain access to auditory information – sufficient to use hearing to learn and acquire knowledge.” ~ THAT is very seemingly deceptive. I can speak very very well that many people assume i am hearing with foreign accent. yes i enjoy full interpersonal communication. a table conversation is very confined to one on one conversation in auditory world for a Deaf person. much less the school and lecture halls. lipreading is not a good substitute of ASL interpreter. I was born that way to hearing parents. half of my siblings are… Read more »

Hartmut Teuber

Well spoken!
For me, I did not lose my hearing, although deafened at two. I never searched for it. I have acquired being Deaf.
The oralists trained me to say, I lost my hearing, which I did until I realized the nonsense behind it. I will say that I don’t hear, am unable to hear, or have hearing inability. When I say, I am deaf, I assert my whole being, my identity, my humanness.

Louis Schwarz

I inhabit both worlds, hearing and deaf, I use sign language, lip reading and the spoken word depending on my situation and who I am communicating with at the time. The impact of deafness doesn’t just manifest itself in communication is ever really that well understood. It’s about the energy involved in lipreading and being attentive all day long. Processing and constructing meaning out of half-heard words and sentences. Making guesses and figuring out context. And then thinking of something intelligent to say in response to an invariably random question. It’s like doing jigsaws, Sudoku and Scrabble all at the… Read more »

Louis Schwarz

Oops, I forgot to type in the link above. Here is the link about the video:

Harold A. Molina

“Children cannot learn both languages at the same time…We know that.” How do you know that? Are there studies to that affect? Have you looked at language development in CODAs? You should see the work NYC schools have done with bilingual classrooms for hearing children who speak ASL at home. Ultimately parents will be making difficult choices for the life of their child. At what age is a child labeled an oral failure? By that time, key years of visual language development (cognitive development) have passed. You say that the language spoken at the home is their native language. But… Read more »

Gina A. Oliva

In the State of California, Lead-K succeeded in getting a bill passed that requires all children identified with hearing loss to be evaluated for their language acquisition every six months. They can be evaluated in English (spoken language), ASL (signed language), or both. Every six months. By independent evaluators.
This is what was passed. Its not about forcing parents to use ASL. Its about forcing States (each state in this country) to look at the language acquisition of all children identified with hearing loss. Simple. Other States with Lead K are following this example.


Every lead-K bill that was proposed, and I’m not talking about CA, did not start out with respecting the choices parents will have made. They do not list modalities becuase lead-K does not see them as critical since they are not languages. Yet, languages are achieved using these modalities. Even cuers are not happy with it. Every bill, except CA, did not start out including spoken language, it had to be added on to it. Nyle DiMarco is the celebrity spokesperson and he keeps calling these bills, ‘Bilingual bills”. The misconception going around are from people like Nyle and those… Read more »

Hartmut Teuber

The spoken modality is included in “English” anyway, to specify it is wholly redundant. The term “spoken language” is a linguistic term to designate all auditory languages. It does not mandate that you MUST learn how to speak it. Many hearing people master a spoken language in the written form and speaking the language horribly. The LEAD-K proponents never exclude speech and use of amplification. When they speak of “English”, it always means both spoken and written. But the LSL always EXCLUDE sign language and other visual implements like Cued Speech, gestures, even the exaggerated mouth movements to ease lipreading.… Read more »

Hermine Willey

Children should speak and listen first and not be taught sign language especially if their parents are hearing. Sign language has approximately 7000 signs.The dictionary has over 350,000 words. Hearing aids have improved immensely over the years and when the hearing aids do not help there is the cochlear implant. Back in 1940 I remained in the public school system with my hearing loss and was given (lip) speech reading, speech lessons and hearing aids. I doubt I would have been successful as microbiologist laboratory supervisor if sign language had been my first language.


I concur with you… That’s why my family are hearing so my mom did not choose Sign language for me while growing up as a child…I get it why… I did not know that Sign language has approximately 700 signs… That’s why I did not learn much through School For The Deaf .. No wonder why… Because I read and learn vocabulary without using Sign language it helps me to expand to learn more reading skills and vocabulary. I pick up more vocabulary compared to 4-5 years ago. ..You’re right! Thankful for my mom to take me to hearing school… Read more »


You are wildly inaccurate on that number of 7,000. There are innumerable words available in ASL, and like any living language new words and new ways to use words are always being added.

Hartmut Teuber

There is another deaf microbiologist by the name Cordano in Wisconsin who is bilingual in ASL and English all her life in her deaf family. I also know of another microbiologist from Yugoslavia, who uses sign language and went to a school for the deaf there and had sign language as his first language. Hearing parents need to learn ASL as soon as they learned that their child does not hear and utilize the resources of deaf people around them. I am angry that my parents and siblings did not learn sign language, when I grew up and missed a… Read more »

anise Morrow

phone conversations. check playing guitar. check playing water polo. check surfing. check talking to mom while in the back seat of the car. check public school. check wirelessly listening to music in class. check Cochlear implants and hearing aides work. Very well. I have two profoundly deaf children (son 16, daughter 12), both diagnosed at birth. They received HA’s and were then implanted at age six with one CI, keeping the HA on the other ear. They are now top students in the public school system. They each have minimal accommodations through their respective IEP’s…time and a half and notetakers… Read more »

Jean Andrews

Here we are responding to Jane Madell’s letter “The Spoken Language vs ASL Debate is Back.” First, we clarify terminology. Secondly, we address Ms. Madell’s claims that are not substantiated by research. Thirdly, we invite Ms. Madell to join us in keeping parents, families, and professionals in the medical, audiological and teaching fields abreast on current evidence-based practices for the benefit of all Deaf and Hard of Hearing children. Clarification of Terminology Ms. Madell’s definitions of terminology are not correct so we want to address these issues. Therefore, the early use of two or dual languages–ASL and English–has existed since… Read more »

Jean Andrews

Here re the References from the Response to Jane Madell’s paper. References Allen, T. E., Letteri, A., Choi, S. H., & Dang, D. (2014). Early visual language exposure and emergent literacy in preschool deaf children: Findings from a national longitudinal study. American Annals of the Deaf, 159(4), 346–358. Andrews, J. F., Hamilton, B., Dunn, K. M., & Clark, M. D. (2016). Early reading for young deaf and hard of hearing children: Alternative frameworks. Psychology, 7(04), 510. Antia, S. D., & Kreimeyer, K. H. (2015). Social competence of deaf and hard-of-hearing children. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Baker, C. (2011).… Read more »

Jean Andrews

The above response and citations are not my work solely but the result of collaborative work of faculty and doctoral students at Language University.

Jean Andrews

Lamar University (not Language University)

Tina Jo

I am becoming baffled why it is so hard to understand that all LEAD-K wants is to give families information on an ongoing basis to monitor their child’s language acquisition –to ensure they are on track. Parents will then be able to make informed decisions for language and literacy goals in IFSPs and IEPs. The hope is that more children will enter Kindergarten ready to learn anything and everything! The suggestions put forward by LEAD-K add strength to those educational plans, to ensure a child’s language development. The idea that being able to articulate words (speak) automatically ensures the ability… Read more »

Jean Andrews

The bottom line for all deaf and hard of hearing children is that we must give them support from birth through all their schooling. To simply put them side by side with hearing children in a mainstream setting is not enough. We must ensure they are progressing in communication, language, cognitive, and academic skills. And we mustn’t forget their social abilities and self concept development too. Mainstreaming can be for “appearances sake” for the parents to think their chid is “normal.” But in reality, it can be lonely and cruel world if deaf children are not provided with other deaf… Read more »

Jennifer Beer

There are a few things in this article that are simply not true. First: “using both sign language and spoken language is bimodal, and not bilingual” – not true. English and ASL are two distinct languages (with different grammar and syntax), as she herself points out later. If you were learning, say, English and SEE, you could say that is bimodal. Because SEE is not a distinct language. ASL (and LSQ, and BSL, etc.) is. Second: “There is enough evidence to convince me that it is not possible to successfully do both at the same time. The two languages have… Read more »