Considerations For A Bilingual Approach In The Education Of The Deaf Child


American Sign Language and spoken English should not be considered as mutually exclusive alternatives, but as potentially complementary strategies for encouraging language development in deaf children.

It is phenomenal the way that young deaf children can acquire two languages (American Sign Language and English) simultaneously, if exposed to them in early life. However, there is the assumption, and resultantly the folk myth, that exposing a young deaf child to two languages may cause language delay and/or language confusion. There is not a body of irrefutable evidence to support this belief.

The research of Dr. Laura Ann Petitto, a neuroscientist widely known for her discoveries about the biological foundations of language, adds credence to other research findings that indicate that young deaf bilingual (American Sign Language and English) children are not harmed, delayed, or confused by early dual language exposure. These children not only achieve their language milestones in both ASL and English, they are also able to reach the same semantic and conceptual development as hearing monolinguals (one language users).

There are educators and parents who believe that education of the deaf child should be conducted in an English-only environment, thus not using the one language to which a deaf child can easily and naturally have full access, a visual language such as American Sign Language (ASL). The educators and parents are concerned that early ASL language exposure may place the deaf child in danger of never becoming competent in English on a par with monolingual hearing peers. There is the fear that exposing a deaf child to American Sign Language (ASL) will prohibit or inhibit normal development in English. For the deaf child, this is reflected in the fact that many deaf children receive their first formal schooling in English-only environments, well after the developmentally crucial toddler years for the acquisition of a natural visual language.

Researchers have examined the impact that acquiring two languages (ASL and English) simultaneously has on young deaf children in early life. There are two general hypotheses that have dominated the field: unitary and differentiated.

The “unitary” hypothesis states that deaf children exposed to two languages do not understand that they are acquiring two languages, and only begin to differentiate the two languages around the age of three or beyond. This hypothesis asserts that deaf children experience delayed language  development until they are able to sort out the two languages early in life. This belief has  predominated scientific literature and has often become educational policy.

The “differentiated” hypothesis on the other hand asserts that bilingual (ASL and English) deaf children can and do differentiate initially the two languages; in fact, current research has found that the differentiation between the two languages occurs from as early as the onset of first words. Findings in this hypothesis indicate that bilingual language exposure from 0 to age five is optimal for dual (ASL and English) language development and mastery.

Research indicates that rapid acquisition of language fundamentals is possible when three key factors occur: 1) Exposure to both ASL and English has to be extensive, systematic, and across multiple contexts. Basically what this means is that the exposure to ASL and English must occur consistently in the home environment, the school environment, and the social environment; 2) Bilingual (ASL and English) deaf children exhibit similar development in both languages comparable in content to hearing peers learning only the English language. They are able to reach the same language milestones; and 3) The use of two languages (ASL and English) does not damage or contaminate the home language (English or another spoken/written language) of the deaf child.

Research has also found that the age of first bilingual (ASL and English) language exposure has a strong impact on a young deaf bilingual’s ability to achieve successful reading acquisition. Studies conducted by Yoshinaga-Itano and others suggest there is a prime period for optimal language development in the first years of life that can lead to reading exposure and mastery. Studies have further shown that early exposed deaf bilinguals can be expected to have reading performance comparable to that of monolinguals, whereas later-exposed deaf bilinguals (ages 3-7) may have lower reading performance in their new language (relative to their home language) due largely to the  incomplete acquisition of the new language and not because of a reading disability. The research supports the educational benefits of early and systematic dual language and reading exposure in both languages (ASL and English).


It is evident, based on current research, that the educational myth that early exposure to two languages (ASL and English) is not valid and does not cause developmental language delay and confusion. Recent studies also indicate that there are optimal learning times and conditions necessary for bilingual (ASL and English) language mastery and what happens that prevent these optimal times and conditions from occurring. Studies also indicate that deaf children who arrive late to a bilingual context can and do achieve language competence in the new language that is introduced (ASL). Full mastery of the new (laterexposed) language needs to occur in highly systematic and multiple contexts that are varied involving home, community, and school, and cannot be achieved solely through classroom instruction alone.

The general findings and implications can be instructive to educational institutions and parents. Young deaf children from an English-speaking home entering kindergarten or first grade need not have ASL withheld from them because of a fear that any exposure to ASL in the schools will prohibit them from achieving fluency in English. These same children need not have “read aloud” DVD books or stories in ASL withheld from them because of a fear that any exposure to ASL texts will prohibit or inhibit their capacity to achieve successful reading in English. Teachers and parents should have no hesitation to use ASL signs with a young deaf child from an English speaking home when teaching this child English.

Such research findings should come as a breath of fresh air to parents who have been bombarded with conflicting advice from professionals since the birth of their deaf child. It is okay to provide access and continuous use of two languages (American Sign Language and English) with the deaf child. One language will not compromise or diminish the other. Instead, the development and nurturing of an accessible, visual language (ASL) will concurrently reinforce the development of English. The two languages will be complementary and will lead to success in literacy and sociocultural development for the deaf child.

Dr. Marc Marschark, an educator of the deaf and a researcher at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, asserts that most investigations of language development in deaf children have examined the development of either American Sign Language (ASL) or spoken English, but not their possible interaction. Preliminary findings suggest that programs that combine ASL and spoken English may prove more effective than programs that use either ASL or spoken English alone. Thus, ASL and spoken English should not be considered as mutually exclusive alternatives, but as potentially complementary strategies for encouraging language development in deaf children.

It is evident that there are linguistic and educational benefits from learning American Sign Language and written/spoken English concurrently. Deaf children can acquire two languages simultaneously when adult language models follow language allocation strategies where the amount of exposure to a written/spoken language is increased as the child first acquires visual language competence. ASL can function as a first language that supports the learning of written/spoken English as a second language. On the whole, bilingual research has shown that fluency in a first language is a strong predictor of second language skill: competence in a second language is a function of proficiency in a first language.

American Sign Language is an accessible and complete visual language that plays to the strength of the child, vision; and, English, is important to the development of literacy in the educational arena. The deaf child should be offered a quality educational program that will prepare him/her to compete as an equal in the hearing world. Surely, the goal of any language program should be the give the deaf child the best of both worlds, the Deaf and the Hearing.•

J. Freeman King, Ed.D. is Professor, Deaf Education, Utah State University in Logan, Utah.

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