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 N.I., Iceland

I work as sign language researcher at the Centre for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing in Iceland.

I am preparing a lecture for deaf parents on language stimulation. There is enough literature on this issue but I face the following problem: deaf immigrants who only know their sign language. They ask us, which language to speak at home to our children, both deaf and hearing, our mother sign language, Icelandic sign language (in cases of deaf children of deaf immigrants) or Icelandic. For me the answer is: their mother sign language and let the children do extra classes in Icelandic/Icelandic sign language. I understand also why they would like to use Icelandic sign language and even Icelandic but I stil am on the opinion that they should use their mothertongue at home.

Are you familiar with literature on this particular issue: deaf immigrants and language stimulation for their children? I will apriciate if you can point me on some literature or even if you can advise me what to say to the deaf parents.

Question from N.I., Iceland. Posted September 19, 2010.
Response from Tane Akamatsu - Toronto Board of Education

This is a simple question with an answer that is really far too complex to do it justice on this forum.  I will attempt the beginning of an answer.  I am not actually aware of any literature that directly addresses this question, but it’s one we deal with in Toronto all the time (immigrants of all kinds, including signing deaf immigrants).

The literature on home- vs. school-language in hearing immigrants says that maintaining the home language is important for several reasons.  First, maintaining a high level of competence in the mother tongue helps support the cognitive-linguistic development of the children in both the mother tongue and the new language.  Relatedly, the way for the children to maintain a high level of competence in the mother tongue is for the parents (i.e., adult language users of that language ) to continue to speak it, rather than a broken form of the new language, or if not broken, then not as competent form of the new language.  Secondly, the children are forced to live in the second language daily anyway, and will learn it well, particularly if they are interacting in the spoken and written forms of that language.  It may take a few years, but it will happen, barring a fundamental language learning disorder.

That said, older children and teens will probably have more difficulty learning the second language, especially if they are not literate in their first language.  However, children and teens who are literate in their mother tongue can use, to the extent that there are similarities between the written forms of the languages, their literacy knowledge to help them learn the second language.  The whole issue is far more complex than “the younger the better” because very young children are typically not literate in their first language.  However, very young children often learn their second language without an accent, and in the absence of (especially literate) support in their mother tongue, may even lose their first language.

My anecdotal experience is that the kids who come with a mother signed language learn ASL signs very quickly in school, and become communicative (maybe bilingual, but I’m not sur) in two signed languages.  Learning English is a challenge anyway, for all the typical deaf reasons, but since literacy instruction is in English, they learn a modicum of English because they are in school.  I don’t know how many were literate or maintain literacy in the language of their country of origin. With respect to deaf and hard of hearing children who move from country to country, the situation interacts with the more fundamental difficulty of quantity and quality of access to competent users of both spoken languages and both signed languages, and of course, to the literate form of any of the languages.

So my short answer to your question is exactly what you thought in the first place, for the reasons I outlined above.  But there are a lot of caveats to that.

For the hard-of-hearing children, the signed language piece may not even be part of the question, unless the parents are deaf, too.

Then, of course, you have the kids with implants, who may or not be signing.  But the analogy still holds.  Competent users of any language should maintain that language in the home.  All the better if these competent users also know/learn the new language, because at some point, the kids’ competence in the new language will overtake the mother tongue because they are being educated in the new language.

The worst case scenario (and I have seen this happen in the Japanese American and Japanese Canadian population) is for the parents to stop speaking their own language and try to communicate in the new language, because then the kids end up with second-language competence in both languages — that is, no real native language, although English tends to be a bit better.