Some bilingualisms are more equal than others

International symbol for deafness from Redeafined

Bilingualism has been a media darling of late, and considering the intense focus of the current scientific community on bilingual brains and the breakneck speed with which globalized societies interact, it’s no surprise. The results of neurological and psychological research show the benefits of bilingualism are far-reaching, ranging from greater cognitive flexibility and faster response times to a substantially decreased risk of dementia. With these overwhelmingly positive findings, it seems logical that professionals and parents would advocate for the development of bilingual curriculums, and some do.  But for deaf children, bilingualism continues to be ignored or actively discouraged, revealing a striking double standard in the way society views education, language and deafness.

American Sign Language (ASL) was recognized as a language in the 1960s, exhibiting all the requisite linguistic parameters, including a vocabulary, syntax, morphology and overarching grammatical structure independent of English. Brain scans proved later that signed languages are processed in the same linguistic centers as spoken ones. Obviously, then, English-ASL bilingualism provides the same linguistic and cognitive benefits as spoken language bilingualism. So why is ASL frequently eschewed in favor of an exclusively auditory-verbal education?

The answer is likely no longer a case of Alexander Graham Bell-era eugenics, but the result of simple misinformation. Cochlear implant success stories pervade the news while their shortcomings are swept under the rug.  Readers are inundated with heart-warming stories of babies’ first heard sounds, while recalls on thousands of malfunctioning implants are relegated to the back pages, reported in the form of falling stock prices. The lopsided news coverage is understandable, particularly for fluffier venues; nobody likes a downer. And it’s easy to see how, in the face of such impressive technology, sign language advocates might be dismissed as out-of-date, or worse, bitter defenders of Deaf culture.

The truth is, though, that while cochlear implants have provided thousands of deaf people with unprecedented access to sound, they cannot replicate normal hearing.  Success rates of whether the user can hear and process speech vary greatly, and even the most advanced implants lack the discriminatory capacity and tonal nuance of the human ear. So while children who access language solely through an implant get incomplete linguistic exposure, those in signing environments can and do acquire spoken language incidentally.

Staunch implant supporters argue that the sound provided by implants is enough, but as a writer and teacher I’m hard-pressed to accept that there’s such a thing as “enough” language. I’m not advocating for Deaf separatism or the abandonment of technology; learning written and spoken English is an important skill for integration into mainstream society and should be a top priority in deaf education. Furthermore, the decision to implant a child is a personal one that belongs to each child’s parents. The problem is not cochlear implants, but rather the touting of implants as cure-alls for deafness and the stigma against sign that results. Deaf children are being denied access to language in favor of promoting access to speech.

A variety of anti-ASL arguments have infiltrated the educational philosophy; ASL prevents the development of speech; learning ASL is hard; the distinct grammar of ASL lowers deaf children’s reading levels. But the belief that signing hinders speech has been dispelled by most specialists. Parents of a hearing child would never be instructed to stop speaking Spanish, French, etcetera, out of concern that it might hurt their child’s English because the suggestion that language delays language is laughable.  In fact, teaching signs to hearing babies is the latest parenting trend, thought to decrease frustration and actually encourage early speech. Still, parents of deaf children are routinely counseled by medical professionals against signing with their implanted children.

The assertion that knowing two languages could harm one’s reading ability is also tenuous. While statistics of deaf children’s lower reading levels are wielded against ASL supporters, this data actually includes deaf children educated orally, and the latest research shows that deaf children who use both ASL and spoken English read better than those who know just one or the other. Finally, the suggestion that verbal communication is superior because it is easier for families should be met with the question easier for whom?

Hearing technology and sign language don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Through bilingualism, deaf children will not only catch up to their hearing peers, but access the benefits of linguistic and cultural diversity experienced by bilingual thinkers everywhere. Deaf children can and should have the best of both worlds, that is, if the signing world is allowed a word in edgewise. Poulin-Dubois D, Blaye A, Coutya J, & Bialystok E (2011). The effects of bilingualism on toddlers’ executive functioning. Journal of experimental child psychology, 108 (3), 567-79 PMID: 21122877

Author Sara Blažić

Sara is a freelance writer and literary translator, instructor of undergraduate writing at Columbia University, and founder of Redeafined ( Twitter @redeafined

More posts by Sara Blažić
  • Sara,
    An extremely well-argued and well-written entry. You draw crucial critical attention to questions that don’t get enough examination, either in mainstream society, or in linguistics. At a very broad level of analysis, I think the biggest issue here — and it extends beyond ASL questions — is the ideology of the “normal”. This ideology truly infuses all aspects of social life as it seeks to push people inexorably to what is “normal”, “mainstream”, in the “center”, etc. It is extremely difficult to challenge and undercut as well, as, for example, your references to medical professionals advising parents of deaf children not to sign with their children clearly illustrates. And it continues to influence bad, just plain wrong “advice” vis-a-vis raising children multilingually in social environments in which monolingual ideology is nested underneath the ideology of “the normal”. So, although I agree with virtually everything you write, I have to say that, sadly, there are still plenty of instances in which parents raising their children to be multilingual are in fact told by too many people, including so-called “educated” people, that doing so will undermine their English (or their German, or their French, or their Russian, depending on where they live).

  • Mi

    Well, there is one issue that you have not addressed. How do you balance the need for voice off ASL (especially when you reach school age) and the need for intensive aural habilitation? Children who are going to make the best use of their hearing devices need to build the auditory pathways in their brain, and they are already at least a year (probably even more since a fetus begins to hear 20 weeks BEFORE birth!) behind. So, even if ASL doesn’t interfere directly with the development of spoken language, the time that one spends using ASL is time that is not being spent developing spoken language and not developing the auditory pathways in the brain.

    • Gerry


      How do you balance the “the need for intensive aural habilitation” with the need for actual education? Aural rehabilitation clearly interferes with education since the time being spent on developing spoken language is not being spent on reading and other actual education. This has been observed with various oral/AVT/LSL deaf education schemes over the past 125 years and is the *real* reason for the (now outdated) statistic that deaf students graduate with a third or fourth grade reading level. The deaf students on whom those old stats are based were overwhelmingly from non-signing educational programs.

      Everyone I know values speech and the ability to understand spoken English as useful skills. However, if time devoted to these crowds out everything else, then deaf children are being harmed.


      • Actually, today’s early implanted kids are generally completely finished with their therapy long before formal education begins!

        But, in response to your question, auditory oral education is NOT speech training. Every moment that is spent in immersive spoken language IS teaching language. You teach spoken language to a child by using language, just like you teach ASL by using it to communicate. You then use the language to teach reading and all the other subjects.

        • Hi Gerry, Miss Kat’s Mom,
          Thanks for reading. I think you’ve both brought up interesting points– MKM that deaf kids need to play catch-up and put time, effort and “intensive aural habilitation” to establish auditory pathways in that allow for the understanding of sound, and Gerry that obtaining language is in some cases sacrificed for speech (and detrimentally so).
          I continue to maintain that there is enough time for both, as there is enough time for Spanish and English, French and English, as there is enough time for science and math, etc. I’m confused by the assertions that ASL takes away time from establishing auditory pathways (never mind the separate discussion of what and how much language kids get from either methodology), “especially when you reach school age,” but that early implanted kids are finished with therapy “long before their formal education begins”? I fail to see the conflict of time or interest indicated.

  • Michael Newman

    There is one error in this otherwise important and interesting post. “Parents of a hearing child would never be instructed to stop speaking Spanish, French, etcetera, out of concern that it might hurt their child’s English because the suggestion that language delays language is laughable.” I hear this all the time from people, students and others who find out I’m a linguistics prof. Not only that, the idea that Spanish time competes with English time in the way that commenter Mi claims is also quite widespread. More generally, the monolingual norm is alive, well, and still doing damage. I think its power derives ultimately in worries about language and identity, that if you speak two languages or sign one and speak another, you don’t belong fully to a single community. This is the case whether or not it’s dressed up in worries about the development of neural pathways, which is an empirical question that remains purely speculative against the clear danger of the lack of development of language that has played deaf people deprived of linguistic input for centuries..

  • Pingback: Fostering Mother Languages « Language Blag()

  • Patrick Sheehan

    RE: “the time that one spends using ASL is time that is not being spent developing spoken language and not developing the auditory pathways in the brain”, and other comments:

    It seems especially strange to suggest that this is true for Sign. In fact, just the opposite is likely to be true.

    It would be one thing to suggest this for English vs Spanish (or any other Aural/Vocal language pairs) where the inputs/outputs are the same: Sound. Even in these cases, there is good evidence they help more than hurt each other.

    But ASL and English can literally be taught simultaneously – not in close inter-layered proximity like in bilingual English-Spanish classrooms, but literally simultaneously with sounds and signs happening together (at least for the foundations: vocabulary building, developing auditory pathways in the brain, etc). There is literally zero time “lost.”

    Not only that, but every-study-ever regarding any sort of learning is clear: one learns everything better when the information is 1) connected to other things you already know (ie, kids that know Sign using that to help learn Auditory/Vocal languages and connect what they already know to auditory stimuli), and 2) when the knowledge is in a rich mental web connecting representations of it in different senses and learning styles (ie, learning both English and Sign and language in general better when watching/hearing/reading/signing/speaking/writing/living are all interlinked).

    So, the claim seems strange to me.

  • Pingback: Language deficit in super-diversity | Language on the Move()