Raising and Educating a Deaf Child

International experts answer your questions about the choices, controversies, and decisions faced by the parents and educators of deaf and hard-of-hearing children.

Sign Language

I am a teacher of the deaf in the school for the deaf in Scotland. I have recently begun working with a family whose son, aged 2 1/2 years, has just been diagnosed with a severe/profound loss. He is currently undergoing cochlear implant assessment. The family are very keen to develop both sign and speech as they acknowledge they do not know what the future holds and they understand the need to establish language. It is at this point my question arises. The family home language is Arabic and they have asked about using Arabic sign and speech at home and BSL/English of the home. The boy in question has a hearing sibling who is already bilingual. I am finding it challenging locating any information about the development of 2 sign languages at the same time. Is this an area any research has ever been done in? Is there any advice I can take to the family? The family used the approach of Arabic at home and English outside the home with their hearing son. Can this approach be applied to the development of 2 sign languages? I don’t think this is beyond the family as Mum is a linguist and can speak 5 languages. Her enthusiasm and interest is immense! My concern is whether this too much for the child?

Question from J.R., Scotland. Posted March 7, 2014.
Response from Deborah Chen Pichler - Gallaudet University

I have been on the lookout for publications on the acquisition of two sign languages simultaneously, but I have not found any. However, there is an increasing number of Deaf couples marrying across nationalities, and raising their children with more than one sign language, so there is anecdotal evidence of children growing up sign bilingual, and from what I hear, the situation is not so different from bilingualism in two spoken languages, or one spoken and one sign language. The biggest challenge to raising functionally bilingual children, however, is not with the children, it’s with the adults. It is very difficult to provide adequate input in both languages, especially if one of the languages is a minority language. Bilingualism researchers estimate that children need much more input in a minority language than is required for a majority language to successfully learn and maintain it at conversational levels. It also helps a lot of the input is from varied sources, including peers; simply depending on the parents to provide input is often not enough. These input challenges are compounded when the goal is to raise the child with 3 or 4 languages.

That said, I am raising my children trilingually, including two very small minority languages, and so far the results are encouraging. My strategy was to greatly prioritize the minority languages in the years before my children entered English-speaking preschool. Until the age of two, we only spoke Taiwanese and Croatian to our children, and they didn’t have much working knowledge of English at all. This made the start of preschool frustrating for them, admittedly, but they learned English so quickly that it wasn’t a problem for long. And it gave them a foundation in Croatian and Taiwanese that we built relentlessly on once they entered school. We invest in multi-week trips to Croatia and Taiwan every year to give them a wider context for using those languages, and to strengthen their relationships with family there. Now, at the ages of 10 and 4, they are both able to use all three languages, although English will undoubtedly become their dominant language.

Finally, as a professor at Gallaudet University, I also signed very extensively with my children when they were young, often in conjunction with spoken Taiwanese. I signed ASL with Taiwanese rather than Taiwan Sign Language, since I don’t know the latter. This actually worked fantastically well for lexical learning and my children quickly amassed a large vocabulary of ASL signs and the corresponding Taiwanese words. On trips to Croatia, the ASL signs also turned out to provide an effective bridge to Croatian: I could speak Croatian and sign key words in ASL, and the children were able to very quickly map the new Croatian word to the familiar sign without having to ask what the Croatian word meant in Taiwanese. I would say that it almost seemed like magic, except that this doesn’t sound very scientific… Of course, as a linguist, I should stress that what I taught my children was not ASL. I mostly taught them just lexical signs, accompanying spoken Taiwanese or Croatian, something akin to what is known as “signed supported English.” This is not a very effective form of sign input for a Deaf child to learn sign language, but my children are hearing, and my goal was not to teach them full ASL.

All this to say that I think learning BSL, spoken English and spoken Arabic should be well within the abilities of this family. The chances of success should be higher than usual, given the parents’ linguistic experience/motivation and the fact that they are willing to give their child early and intense exposure to sign language (something I think is one of the best things parents can do to to ensure the success of a cochlear implant). I would advise against trying to learn Arabic SL and focus on BSL instead. Sign language vocabulary is very easy to learn, but the grammar and phonology can be challenging for hearing learners, so one sign language at a time is probably plenty. Since this family will be trying to teach BSL as a full language to their child, it will be *very* important to find native signing BSL models and peers for the child, and to not limit their BSL use to lexical signs accompanying spoken Arabic sentences (feel free to use Arabic words with BSL signs for vocabulary learning, but my point is that there needs to also be times when BSL is used on its own). There will be plenty of time for the child to pursue Arabic SL (there are actually multiple, distinct sign languages used in Arabic-speaking countries) later once he or she is a bit older and has established BSL and spoken Arabic.

What is the difference between American Sign Language and Signed English? Is there another name that people refer to Signed English? Is it preferable to teach kids Signed English?

Question from S.T, Kentucky. Posted October 31, 2013.

Sign (or signed) languages are not universal languages, nor are they invented ones. They are, like spoken languages, natural languages, grown and transmitted in communities of language users. In the case of sign languages, the cores of these communities are deaf people and their deaf or hearing relatives. Languages constitute one of the most important characteristics of the cultural and psychological identities of various peoples. This process of cultural identification explains why deaf people in the United States use American Sign Language (ASL), deaf people in France use French Sign Language (la Language des Signes Francais), and deaf people in the Netherlands use Sign Language of the Netherlands (Nederlandse Gebarentaal). The structure of sign languages resembles that of spoken languages with their own vocabulary, phonology (albeit in manual form), morphology, syntax, and pragmatics; so ASL is not a form of English.

There are also systems that combine speech and sign according to different rules, and Signed English is one of these (as are Signed Dutch and Signed Polish). These systems differ in the extent to which they represent the lexical and grammatical properties of the spoken language in the sign channel. Some systems are strict, designed to represent the elements of a spoken language 100% in manual components. They manually encode English or Dutch fully, or at least that is the intention.

There are claims that deaf children will learn to read better if they learn a manually-coded form of the spoken/written language (like English), but there is little evidence to support that claim. Although systems like Signed English have the advantage of being more English-like, they do not “hold together” structurally the way natural languages like ASL do. Different children will find different modes of communication easier to master, and one could probably argue either way. ASL is a true language and at the heart of the Deaf community, however, while Signed English is an artificial sign system intended as an educational tool and is not often used in conversation.

Recommended Reading:

Holcomb, T. K. (2013). An introduction to American deaf culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marschark, M. (2007). Raising and educating a deaf child, Second edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

I have a 7 month old son, and although his hearing is fine, my wife and I would like to teach him sign language. We have seen a lot of books out there but I thought I would ask you and get your advise as to which book(s) you would recommend.

Question from S.J., Rochester, NY. Posted October 28, 2013.

One thing I think you would want to avoid are “baby sign” books that offer artificially-created signs (designed to make money for the authors). If you’re going to sign with your hearing child, you might as well use a natural sign language – in our case American Sign Language. Many schools now accept ASL as satisfying their foreign language requirement.

Folks in the NTID Department of American Sign Language and Interpreter Education have offered three recommendations:

The Gallaudet Dictionary of American Sign Language 

 The Gallaudet Survival Guide to Signing

Basic Course in American Sign Language

They are available from Amazon and other retailers.

My son is 5 1/2, hard of hearing, moderately-severe to profound, bilateral aids since he was 4 months old. He is currently in a mainstream school, and also knows ASL, although he doesn’t like to use it. His reading skills are incredible – he has read dozens of “chapter books” since he learned to read last winter/spring. He has really good fine-motor control. But his pencil skills however are truly awful, well behind everyone else in his class, and he is even very unwilling to even try printing/tracing letters. He is on the waiting list to see the school board OT about a possible dysgraphia diagnosis. Is there any connection between his written language problems and his hearing problems? Or between his written language problems, and his unwillingness to use ASL?

Question from J.B., Ontario. Posted October 18, 2012.

It appears that your son’s problem is not a written language problem. Instead, as you have described it here, the problem is with his handwriting. If his reading skills are strong, then his written language skills may also be strong. However, you and his teachers will need to bypass handwriting in order to accurately assess his written language knowledge and skills. That can be done easily with the use of magnetic letters and/or the computer. He can construct his stories using magnetic letters or he can type his stories, instead of trying to print them.  I used this approach with a kindergarten student who was hard of hearing and also had cerebral palsy and could not write with a pencil. She was allowed to compose her stories using magnetic letters until she had learned the alphabet and then on the computer. The approach was highly successful.

I cannot say whether your son’s handwriting problem is related to his hearing loss. A consult with the school’s occupational therapist is definitely in order.

With regard to his unwillingness to use ASL, that is most likely an identity issue. Most children, regardless of age, do not want to be different from their peers. Because your son is mainstreamed with children who are hearing and use spoken language to communicate, I am not at all surprised that he doesn’t want to use ASL.  My best guess is that he wants to be like his peers and use spoken language to communicate.  Using ASL sets him apart from his peer—makes him different—the very thing children try to avoid.

I have a son who was born deaf but has a cochlear implant. he doesn’t want to pick up on spoken language so im introducing sign language to him. He also has many developmental delays and was wondering what would be the best way to go about teaching how to sign.

Question from P.T., California. Posted September 19, 2012.

This is a tricky question, not one that can be addressed fully on this site. There are so many questions that need to be asked! Crucially, I would want to know things like: How old is the child? How long since he had his implant, and has he been wearing it consistently? Are you sure the technology is working correctly and that your son was mapped correctly? What do we know about these other developmental delays?

Importantly, we need to know what is meant by “doesn’t want to pick up on spoken language.”  This is an interesting and unusual way of phrasing this, and I would need to know how you have reached this conclusion? It is only with this sort of information that we can give you any clear advice. Plus, assessments describing the child’s progress or lack of progress from the pre-implant stage to now would be very useful indeed.

The next step would be to think about what you mean by sign language. To professionals this may be very clear, but to parents it can mean many different things. Are you looking to use signs to support spoken language? Or, are you looking at a whole new language? Using simple signs to support spoken English would be a great place to start. Learning a language like American Sign Language would require a big commitment from you and other family members. And, she would need to explore at length whether your child’s developmental delays might act as a barrier to language learning – sign languages are not an easy option!

I think you really need to talk to your local professionals, so the whole family can all think about what you are trying to achieve with your child and refocus on the goals. Importantly, if they tell you either that you must not sign with your son or that he will never achieve spoken language, you should look for another opinion. There is no “black and white” here, you are asking about a complex situation that likely does not have any simple answer.

I had an audiologist tell me that 99% of the time when you add sign support to an implanted student the language level/development drops. I respectfully disagreed – Your thoughts?

Question from R.S., California. Posted May 17, 2012.

Thoughts aside, there is no published evidence we know of to indicate that this is the case. You might recommend the following to the audiologist: Spencer, L. J., Gantz, B. J. & Knutson, J. F. (2004). Outcomes and achievement of students who grew up with access to cochlear implants. Laryngoscope, 114, 1576 –1581. They found that high school students with implants who also had sign language interpreters in the classroom were performing at a level comparable to their hearing peers, a result normally not obtained with longer-term use of implants by students without sign language support.

What is the difference between a sign skills coach and an interpreter?

Question from A.M., New York. Posted March 16, 2012.

The position of “Signing Skills Coach” originated from the one-on-one position referred to as a Skills Coach. A skills coach is an individual who works along side of a student/client and assists with the learning of a task/job.  For example, a skills coach might work with a developmentally disabled individual to learn the job of a dish washer.   A “Signing Skills Coach” is an individual who knows sign language and functions as  a skills coach with a student/client who is deaf, hard-of-hearing or in some circumstances hearing but can benefit from sign (e.g., some individuals with autism, Downs Syndrome, etc.).  The requirements are that the coach have intermediate to advanced signing skills and basic skills in consecutive interpreting.

A sign language interpreter is fluent in ASL (or other natural sign language) and all forms of signed English (or other spoken language). An interpreter would work between the hearing and deaf person but not teach the deaf person a skill.  Interpreters can work consecutively but tend to work simultaneously.

Are there assessment tools to help determine what type of sign language modality would be most effective for an 8 year old child? Are there assessments that measure the effectiveness of various sign language modalities? Are there resources that describe and illustrate (video tapes) the different sign language modalities (ASL, SSE, Conceptually Accurate Sign Language, etc.)?

Question from J.G., Illinois. Posted March 16, 2012.

We carry out specialized individual assessments of deaf children’s signing skills at City University London’s Compass Centre (http://www.city.ac.uk/health/public-clinics/compass-centre). Our assessment team includes deaf native signers and hearing staff who are fluent signers. When considering the best modality for a child, we compare their sign language abilities with their spoken language and, if applicable, their sign-supported communication. With 8 year olds we can assess their BSL comprehension and production skills using standardized tests (Herman et al 1999 http://www.forestbooks.com/products/pages/search.php and Herman et al 2004 http://www.city.ac.uk/health/public-clinics/compass-centre/sign-language-assessment-clinic/assessing-bsl-development-production-test). There are similar tests available for other sign languages (see Haug’s website http://www.signlang-assessment.info/index.php/sign-language-acquisition.html). We do not know of any similar assessment tools for SSE. The final decision about the best modality takes account of test results alongside careful consideration of the child’s communication environment. This includes observation of their everyday communication with native signers, communication at school and at within the family and discussion at the assessment appointment about how they communicate with deaf and hearing people in general. In this way, we try to determine the best communication approach for a particular child. We do not know of any assessment tools for SSE but there are also assessment tools for speech reading in children of this age available: http://www2.cmp.uea.ac.uk/~bjt/avsp2009/proc/papers/paper-36.pdf

References (for BSL)

Herman, R., Holmes, S., & Woll, B. (1999). Assessing British Sign Language Development: Receptive Skills Test.  Forest Bookshop.  Gloucestershire, UK.

Herman, R., Grove, N., Holmes, S., Morgan, G., Sutherland, H. & Woll, B. (2004). Assessing BSL Development: Production Test (Narrative Skills).  City University Press.

If you are interpreting in an educational setting, would it be more appropriate to stand at the front of the classroom or sit with the deaf student therefore being able to maintain eye contact and attention at all times?

Question from G.W., United Kingdom. Posted January 26, 2012.

When interpreting in any situation, an interpreter must be able to have eye contact at all times with the deaf client(s), and the client(s) be able to see what is happening near the speaker.

In the case of the classroom, the teacher is responsible for all the students, hearing or deaf, paying attention (which might mean some educating on your part). The interpreter can either sit near the student or at the front of the classroom as long as it allows interpreter-student eye contact and the student being able to see what the teacher is doing.  For example, some interpreters in a math class (with permission from the teacher) will follow the teacher as s/he writes a problem on the board, so the students can watch both.

Of course, students of different ages have different attention spans and needs, and any vision problems would have to be considered.  There is not one right or wrong answer for every situation – as is often true of interpreting, “it depends on the situation” (e.g., the age of the student, the class, communication needs of the child).  The ability of the interpreter and student to have direct eye contact and the student to see what the teacher is doing during the lesson is a top priority, whether you are near the student or at the front of the classroom.

How can I become an interpreter for the deaf in the Binghamton, New York, area? I took ASL in high school and enjoyed it. I have been to Deaf Clubs but cannot find any now and would like to get back into it.

Question from S.M., New York. Posted January 9, 2012.

The place I would start is at the Southern Tier Independence Center, located in Binghamton. Their website is www.stic-cil.org. The relevant FAQ on their website is somewhat out of date, but it includes the following information (slightly edited here):

1. Where can I take sign language classes?
Sign classes are scheduled pretty regularly at Broome-Tioga BOCES and Broome Community College. Or, stop in and check out the bulletin boards in our Deaf Services area; we update them constantly with notices about sign classes and Deaf culture events in our region.
2. Where do I go for sign-language interpreter training?
There are two high-quality interpreter training programs within reasonable traveling distance of Binghamton:
Rochester Institute of Technology
Rochester, NY
Bloomsburg University
400 East 2nd. St.
Bloomsburg, PA 17815
http://www.bloomu.edu/asl
 
Our region has a severe shortage of qualified interpreters. STIC’s Interpreter Services Program is a dispatching service for interpreters working as independent contractors. Interpreting is a very demanding profession; we cannot use people who have just “taken a few sign classes”, but we are always looking for well-trained interpreters. We strongly encourage you attend one of these programs if you are interested in interpreting as a career.