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 And it’s easy to see how, in the face of such impressive technology, sign language advocates might be dismissed as out-of-date, or worse, bitter defenders of Deaf culture.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