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.

Question from J.R., Scotland

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.