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.T., Manitoba

I am a teacher of the deaf struggling with our province’s policies regarding criteria for cochlear implantation i.e. no use of ASL or entrance into a deaf school etc. Can you direct me to specific research articles that support the use of sign language before and after cochlear implantation? Or articles that de-bunk the myth that sign language interferes with the acquisition of spoken language?

Question from N.T., Manitoba. Posted November 22, 2010.
Response from Marc Marschark - NTID

For starters, as far as we can find, there has never been any evidence that learning to sign interferes with learning to speak. Arguments made along those lines almost universally invoke the “laziness hypothesis,” that is, that because it is easier for children to sign than to speak (which should tell you something), children who are allowed to sign will be too lazy to learn to speak. One possible source of that incorrect assumption was a 1986 publication showing that young deaf children who had both sign language and spoken language skills tended to sign more than speak. The reason, however, was that they were more likely to be understood when they signed than when they spoke.

With regard to children who utilize cochlear implants, there are at least a couple of studies showing that such students gained better spoken language skills when they were in “oral” programs than when they were in programs utilizing sign language. In part, those results reflect the selection of implant candidates (at the time) who were most likely to be successful with spoken language. But it also does make sense that spoken language would be facilitated by greater exposure to it.  What we know is that early expressive language skills (whether signed or spoken) support later development of spoken language – see Yoshinaga-Itano, C. (2006).  Early identification, communication modality, and the development of speech and spoken language skills: Patterns and considerations. In P. E. Spencer & M. Marschark (Eds.), Advances in the spoken language development of deaf and hard-of-hearing children (pp. 298-327). New York: Oxford University Press – a finding that appears to hold for children with and without implants.

Now, none of this relates to academic achievement,  and that really is what your question is about. Not only is there no evidence that sign language interferes with literacy or other domains of achievement for deaf children with implants, the only study we are aware of in which children with implants performed at the same level as their hearing peers was one in which in addition to intensive exposure to spoken language, the students also had access to sign language interpreters in school. That reference is 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.