A Profound Enigma – Teaching Sign Language to Hearing Children and Speech to Deaf Children

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BY J. FREEMAN KING, ED.D.

Is it not logical and linguistically savvy to play to the child’s strength and not his/her weakness?

Throughout the years, many different language learning theories have emerged. The latest phenomena in the United States is the teaching of sign language to hearing toddlers and preschoolers. Conversely, there is a push to to teach speech to infants, toddlers, and preschoolers who are deaf. Herein lies the enigma: eliciting the use of vision and sign language to promote language development in the hearing child, yet prohibiting the deaf child from using a visual language. In essence, the deaf child is being penalized for their weakness (hearing), instead of promoting their strength (vision).

Linguistic competency is necessary for human interactions. Language is necessary for the flow of information between children; between children and their parents; and between children and their teachers. Language is used to develop and enhance cognitive skills, to develop literacy, and to develop social and emotional skills. It is the pathway to intellectual growth, and essential for involvement in the entirety of the educational experience. Hence, the idea that sign language can be another avenue to assist the hearing child in learning and utilizing language.

Sign language is a tool that can be used to promote speech and English language competency in hearing children, even though speech is the primary method through which the English language is produced. Is it not putting the cart before the horse when speech, which cannot be heard or impartially heard, also becomes the primary tool for the deaf child through which language is accessed and produced?

If, in fact, as research has demonstrated, the use of sign language does promote speech development and provides a bridge to English language development in children who can hear, would it not be logical to assume that the use of sign language in deaf children would also be a viable bridge to the English language in children who are deaf? Even though American education champions bilingualism in hearing children why, in the same breath, does it deny such a possibility to deaf children? Is it not logical and linguistically savvy to play to the child’s strength and not his/her weakness?

Research has shown that sign language (for both hearing and deaf infants, toddlers, and preschoolers) provides the earliest possible mode through which children can learn expressive language skills and open the door to shared meanings. The reason for this is that children begin to learn language long before they are physically capable of producing speech. While speech capabilities are still maturing, children struggle to find ways of expressing wants, desires, and intentions. Given exposure to a visual language of signs, children are able to master language at an earlier stage. Signing children can communicate, while their peers are frustrated when others cannot comprehend their communication attempts.

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Common sense, as well as research, has illuminated much related to language acquisition and language learning:

Early language learning experiences affect other areas of development that are critical to children’s future success. Lack of language access can negatively impact cognitive, psychological, and social development. Poor language skills are often linked to behavioral problems, academic difficulties, lowered self-esteem, and social immaturity. Behavioral problems are often the end result of children’s frustration at not being able to communicate with their parents or significant others. Yet, research shows that children with strong language skills, regardless of the language, consistently outperform their peers on tests of intelligence and other measures of success. The language might be English or French or another spoken language, or it can be sign language; the key is language accessibility of a deep and meaningful nature. The earlier a child acquires his/her first language, the greater the success will be in acquiring subsequent language skills and meeting other important developmental milestones.

All children (hearing and deaf) can benefit from the use of sign language, with no risk to academic, social, or emotional development, or spoken language skills. For both hearing and deaf children, sign language gives a head start in language learning, and can lead to higher achievement in measures of intelligence, academic and social development. Used in classrooms with hearing children, sign language has been shown to assist in reducing the achievement gap between underprivileged children and their peers. It is also important to note that there is no substantial body of research that indicates learning and using sign language will hinder the development of speech skills in either deaf or hearing children.

For deaf infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, sign language is a critical first step to communication. It is the key to eventual development of literacy in English and, possibly, spoken language skills. It provides the only accessible venue for natural and complete language acquisition in the early years, and serves to prevent deaf children from becoming victims of the staggering language delays often associated with deafness. Deaf children who learn sign early as their first language generally learn to read and to write English better than those who are exposed only to spoken language. It is also an established fact that expressive language ability, in any mode, is often one predictor of the development of speech. Beyond the enormous advantages to deaf children’s language, social and cognitive development, children’s knowledge of sign language opens the door for involvement with a strong and supportive community of other deaf individuals.

Hard of hearing infants, toddlers, and preschoolers often fall through the cracks of the educational system. This is a result of the erroneous assumption that they are primarily auditory learners. Even hearing losses so minimal that are diagnosed as being within normal limits have been shown to have significant negative impacts on children. The less significant the hearing loss, the smaller the chances of having the loss identified early. After the hearing loss is identified, technological assistance and/or added speech training are hard pressed to compensate for a profound inability to fully access spoken language. For these children, sign language provides the only bridge to fully accessing language. It also serves to provide access to the critical element of incidental learning.

Technology, even though it can be a useful tool for promoting speech, does not necessarily assure the expectations espoused. A child with a cochlear implant, or one who uses hearing aids, at best, is hard of hearing. Maintenance issues, programming/adjustment issues, and restrictions as to when and where technological devices can be conveniently and safely used can create problems. The use of sign language is a viable solution to these problems. Sign language can be utilized before audiological supports can be properly fitted and/or programmed for children. If children are able to develop spoken language skills, the use of signs should be continued to complement spoken language, especially when the need for communication is immediate, and spoken language becomes inadequate due to difficulties with the technology, poor acoustics in the environment, or other extenuating factors.

The question naturally will be raised, “Is sign language the right choice for every child? Certainly, only the child’s family can make this decision; however, closely observing and letting the child take the lead regarding communication and language is an important element that should be considered. However, keeping in mind that the deaf child (with or without a hearing aid or a cochlear implant) is primarily a visual learner, it seems only logical to play to the child’s strength, vision, and not his/her weakness, hearing.

Historically, many deaf children have been placed in oral-aural only programs, then transferred to signing programs when it was discovered that they were not oral-aural candidates, and were not able to access language. Perhaps, all deaf children should be initially placed in signing programs, then switched to oral-aural programs if they are failing. It is safe to say that very few would be switched to oral-aural programs due to failure to access language. Why can the child not be given the best of both worlds? That is, the opportunity and the ability to use sign language, when appropriate, and the opportunity and the ability to use speech, when appropriate.•

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
J. Freeman King, Ed.D. is Professor, Deaf Education, at Utah State University.


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