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Should Deaf Children With Hearing Parents Learn A Sign Language?

deafEvery year, 10,000 U.S. children are born deaf.  For more than 95 percent of those children, they are born to hearing parents. As the popularity of cochlear implants (CI) increases, parents are immediately faced with a potential life-altering decision: Should they and their child learn a sign language or seek a CI and concentrate on oral communication?

The short answer is: both.

Experts will tell you that learning several languages — including a sign language — is more beneficial than learning just one.

“Bilingual children display better mental flexibility and cognitive control as well as more creative thinking, especially in problem solving,” said Christian Rathmann, PhD, professor of sign languages and sign interpretation at the University of Hamburg; and Gaurav Mathur, PhD, associate professor of linguistics at Gallaudet University in the current issue of Pediatrics. “These benefits extend to social and academic settings.”

Deaf children of hearing parents — and hearing parents with a deaf child — all face the unique challenge of not sharing their natural language.  Children can not understand their parents’ primary language and parents most often do not know a sign language to teach their children.

“There are no risks to learning sign language along with spoken language, but there are well-defined benefits,” said John D. Lantos, M.D., director of the Children’s Mercy Hospital Bioethics Center. “For parents and families who are willing and able, this approach seems to be clearly preferable to an approach that focuses solely on oral communication.”

While most experts agree that learning both languages is best, the timing of introducing a sign language can be critical when a CI is involved.

“For a child who receives a CI, the timely activation of the device begins a fuller experience with sound,” said Nancy K. Mellon, founder and head of school at The River School in Washington, DC; and John K. Niparko, MD, chair of the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Southern California. “Reliance on sign language over an extended period of time may negatively affect the child’s capacity to learn spoken language after cochlear implantation.”

Sascha Scambler, PhD, is a senior lecturer in Sociology at King’s College London and a hearing parent of a deaf child. Dr. Scambler’s son has a CI, but the family has decided to learn a sign language together for those times when the CI may be impaired.

“We, as a family, are in the process of learning sign language. We use it in conjunction with spoken English,” said Dr. Scambler. “We chose this approach because we need it when our son is not wearing his implants or is unable to hear sufficiently because of background noise.”

The Scambler’s also believe bilingualism will provide their son with the necessary skills to make his own decision later in life.

Deaf children should “be given access to both oral/aural and signed language to enable them to make their own choice when old enough to do so,” said Scambler.

While some experts are concerned that learning a sign language may interfere with the intense training necessary to reap the benefits of a cochlear implant, most agree that a cautious and educated bilingual approach is most beneficial for the child and the family.

-Alan Lyndon

(Photo by David Fulmer via Flickr)

23 comments

  1. I love where you said there are no risks to using sign language, but there are well-defined benefits. My cousin just had a baby who was born deaf. They aren’t sure what type of education to give this baby girl. I think they should do some research in ASL education and the development the kids can experience.

  2. I don’t agree with this at all. I grew up deaf, no learning the use of sign language. It didn’t really affect my learning skills whatsoever. But now, as I age, my hearing worsen, I have to learn sign language.

    • Robert Wasmund II

      Curious Message that you wrote. at first, you said “I grew up deaf, …” then later you wrote, “But now, as I age, my hearing worsen, …” Sound like you have some degree of what hearing people called, which I consider as unacceptable term, “hearing loss.” I know some deaf will call this hearing level as Hard of Hearing, not deaf like profound deaf like me. You might able to hear some sound, but not completely. Anyway, what really bother me is the double standard among hearing people (not all of them but lot of them that act like Audism) which told deaf children not to learn sign language for various of century old reasons like (it is easier for deaf to use their eyes than to use their ears or if we allow deaf children to learn sign language, they will not learn to talk at all (which is total untrue but a great promoting for their business purposes), but at the same time fully embrace hearing children learning sign language for their own benefit of using their mind. That what really bother me.

  3. I am hearing and had my daughter implanted when she was 3. I also at the same time started both of us in sign language classes. She grew up in a deaf school and then in her senior year decided to change to our public school that did not have a deaf program. She said that she actually liked that school better. She is fluent in sign language but at the same time can hold her own when applying for jobs, etc. She attended college at NTID in New York. I am a true believer that even though a child is implanted they should still learn sign language. Just because you have an implant doesn’t mean you can hear or understand everything. As my daughter got older it was up to her if she wanted to continue to use the implant or not. She has chosen to wear it as she has the option to hear what is around her but at the same time she can still sign with her husband and friends.

  4. Point in this article is learning aa signed language harms no deaf or hard-of-hearing child, nor his learning a spoken language. Denying him a signed language as a first language DOES in many areas, linguistically, emotionally, and socially.

    Furthermore, combating the existence of signed language by denying learning and using it as the ilk from AGBAD (the audists) has been doing is harming mankind. Doing so is cultural genocide.

  5. Another fine example of hearing people, Nancy K. Mellon, founder and head of school at The River School in Washington, DC; and John K. Niparko, MD, chair of the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Southern California, confusing learning to use voice with learning language. I wonder how many Deaf adults these two have spent time with. Apparently none!

  6. Meredith Sugar would do well to open her mind to the richness of a bilingual ( or multi lingual education ) . She talks of the “desire” parents have to focus solely on listening and spoken language. That desire has had devastating effects on the wellbeing of Deaf people. Historically, it is that mentality that has led to so many deaf people suffer from the rejection of their deaf identity. ( ” my parents do not love me deaf”) Deaf education is a construct that serves the hearing people s values ( and they naturally value hearing high.y) to the detriment of respecting the values of Deaf people. Signed languages are taught to hearing babies. It beggars belief that deaf babies would be denied exposure to a wonderful sophisticated visual language that they would be able to master easily, naturally and effortlessly, just like hearing babies acquire spoken language. CI are a red herring. Anybody can learn sign language, nobody has ever regretted knowing more than one language.

  7. Happy to report that comments are forthcoming regarding the recent “Pediatrics” article, as the panelists involved in such article presented a very biased and inaccurate total view. Studies are showing that, with newborn screening, early amplification via cochlear implants, and quality early intervention take place, many (if not the majority of) deaf children do not have the need for ASL in order to communicate. Moreover, recent studies comparing “A-V” (auditory verbal approach not using ASL) outcomes compared to mixed approaches (e.g., A-V AND ASL), are showing better listening and spoken language (LSL) amongst the A-V approach children. Although many like to cling to the nonsuccess stories of years ago, the fact is that CI technology has changed the playing field. There may be families who WANT to utilize ASL for whatever reason. But “should” a family use ASL when they have the desire to focus solely on listening and spoken language? No. The window to acquire LSL is much shorter than the window to acquire ASL. Phenomenal results are being achieved by families focusing solely on LSL. Many of today’s CI children who focus solely on LSL and do not use ASL receive absolutely no services beyond the age of 4 or 5.

  8. Of course hearing parents required to learn sign language make sense Deaf means Deaf communicate by their eyes and hands not ears as natural. Hearing babies listen sounds but not Deaf how by their eyes are listening. Just be proud to have Deaf babies and kids by natural sign language.

    • I VE SEEN AS A NEW HEARING GRANDMOTHER OF A DEAF TODDLER EXACTLY WHAT U MEAN BY LISTENING WITH THEIR EYES ITS FACINATING HOW MUCH IS GRASPED BY THEIR EYES.THEY READ EVERYTHING EMOTIONS EVERYTHING…………………FROM EVEN CARTOON CHARACTERS,WHATS GOING ON IN A GIVEN SITUATION.

  9. Great article. When our son was born deaf, we started using sign with him right away, in addition to getting hearing aids. Both methods of communication activate the language centres of the brain, and starting sign right away meant that our son wasn’t missing out on language in those crucial early months while we waited for his earmolds to come in. I am pleased as punch to relate that at age 8, he is bilingual and reads English at a high school level! We still use sign regularly – in the morning before he has his aids in, at baseball when he’s got a helmet over his aids, to communicate over distances instead of yellling, or when we had to do a lice treatment (ugh) that meant leaving oily gunk in his hair for 15 minutes. There is so much research supporting the use of sign from infancy, I don’t know why anyone would be against it!

  10. As a member of a medical family and a mother of a deaf child , I can from experience say that physicians don’t have insight or the knowledge to make these claims. They don’t understand how a child gains receptive and expressive language, what the various methods of communication are and indeed how successful each one is . The success of deaf children depends on many factors , including residual hearing, access to speech/language pathologists , commitment by parents etc.. Doctors are surprised when I present the statistics of illiteracy among the deaf. The best models of any language are those fluent in that language and they are asking parents to go and learn a new language to be the model of receptive and expressive. I was told by a pediatrician that my daughter should go to a special preschool program , when I looks into it it was for developmentally delayed kids, my daughter was deaf…just deaf. Thankfully I had the ability and insight to ignore what I was told. My daughter born profoundly deaf , now has a BA and MA from regular universities travels by herself all over the world, is not only fluent in English but has studied Latin, Japanese and studied Spanish at university. We never signed to her.

    • Dee, I am thrilled to hear of your daughter’s success, but that does not negate the points being made by the physicians in this article. I know 2 young men currently attending ivy league colleges, one in undergraduate school at Princeton, the other in graduate school at Harvard. Both have hearing parents. Both attended bilingual schools and grew up using American Sign Language. One can find individual success stories to support any position.
      There is respected research that strongly supports the value of a bilingual approach with deaf infants and toddlers. I encourage parents to look at the work of Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto and the VL2 team at Gallaudet University.

  11. I grew up oral and did not have the opportunity to learn sign language until much later in life (in my 30s). I truly wish I had been connected with the Deaf community and learned ASL growing up, it would have definitely helped me to feel “I belong”. I have learned English and speak it well so I am grateful for that. The hearing world is really all I know and I have adjusted well. I have found a small group of d/Deaf people I hang with occasionally that I love.
    CI and HAs do not “fix” hearing, they either give the person different sound or amplify sound. I feel strongly that parents should provide all communications opportunities to their child. ASL & Oralism & speechread/lipread & cued speech will give the child brightest of minds.

  12. People often make mistakes thinking language and speech as inter-changeable. They are NOT.

    Language means the abilities to think and express concrete and complex ideas, thoughts, etc.

    Speech is merely language behavior, an extension of language, either spoken, signed and written

    I do NOT trust professionals like Nancy K. Mellon, founder and head of school at The River School in Washington, DC; and John K. Niparko, MD, chair of the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Southern California.

  13. I still dont support ci. Because it seems didnt works that well. We all should wait for better techs than that. Also all deaf child should be not touched play with their ears froce them get ci so you can talks and being lazy not learning signs. You must leave deaf child alone allow them be whatever they wants till they grow up older eought to make their decides. Not by hearing people they cannt judge on their child to get what they wants no no.. this wrong. I will never support ci. I am againest it. No ci no ci no ci!!!!! You learn signs! Dont froce them to speak! If you all keep froce them like that we all deaf will froce all of you to learn signs!

  14. “Normal hearing kids” ? Are you saying it is not normal for Deaf and Hard of Hearing kids to have sign language as their first language? What is normal anyway and how dare you to decide what is best for us!

  15. Patti E. Singleton, Ph.D.

    As a certified teacher of Deaf and hard of hearing students for over 30 years, I have taught all levels of deaf children, from elementary through high school and college. Now as a Community College Counselor, I see many deaf students who were not given access to ASL in their early years, and now struggle to learn written English. Studies show that children must have early exposure to language during those important formative year age 0 – 3. Not having a strong L1 – First Language, will make it difficult to acquire fluency and comprehension in an L2 – Second Language.
    That’s why we developed our ASL ESOL program at ACC-Austin Community College, in Austin, Texas. We teach students about the grammatical structure of ASL, the syntax, rules, etc so they understand ASL as a real language. They are already fluent in ASL as a communication tool, but do not study ASL as a language like hearing people study English every year they are in school…hearing people are often more aware of the linguistic aspects of ASL than deaf people themselves!!
    I grew up hard of hearing, and learned to speak and lipread while using a hearing aid. I struggled especially in my middle school years, when kids would whisper and cover their mouths when speaking, and you can only lipread one person at a time in groups…I always felt left out and had to depend on a few close friends who would tell me what someone said. Sometimes when I asked “What did you say?’, they would answer “Oh, it’s not important!”…which, when said often enough, led to me feel like I was not important. This caused me to have low self esteem and deep feelings of being left out and also feeling not good enough. Later when I was 21, I was finally exposed to and learned ASL, which I wish I had much sooner. This, plus several years of counseling helped me overcome these earlier feelings of inadequacy. I have a greater empathy for the deaf and hard of hearing students I work with, as I personally understand the same struggles they go through in education and daily life.
    Having language is so crucial, and I strongly recommend that parents to learn Sign Language-ASL as this is a tool that can greatly enhance your child’s intellectual development. I also encourage parents to read to and teach their children to read everything they can – Why would you want to deny and hold anyone back from achieving literacy?? Give your deaf children every opportunity possible to sign and communicate with you and their surroundings. This Direct Communication is essential to their linguistic and intellectual development that will lead to greater success in education and a career. If anyone wants to contact me, my email is: drpatti@austincc.edu. I love talking to parents about their deaf children, and will be happy to share more information, as a role model for others that they CAN succeed, when given the opportunities. The Texas School for the Deaf – ERCOD – Educational Resource Center on Deafness – also has wonderful resources for parents to use in learning about how to raise their deaf child, learning ASL, CI information, etc.
    P.S. When I began using sign language, the first thing my parents asked me was “Will you stop talking??” to which I responded, “NO WAY!! Signing is simply another tool to express and enhance my communication with others”. I’ve never stopped talking, and feel like ASL is my L1, even though I learned English first.

  16. Most hearing parents of deaf children do not learn to sign sufficiently, in such a way, that they still think their implanted child is instantly a hearing person. They often forget that their implanted child is legally deaf, thus inadvertently putting sign language at the last priority.

  17. Using ASL and a CI has been beneficial for our son. He speaks in some situations and signs in others. Having signing peers has allowed his leadership skills to develop without being stigmatized as “the deaf kid.” I know of families that are happy having children implanted young and never learning to sign. I know of families that use only ASL. We use both because it seems to us a good way to have as much clear communication as possible with as many people as possible.

  18. Thanks for this article! We want to have the public understand that babies crawl before they walk and sign before they talk.
    We all know how important it is for Deaf children and their families receive early and ongoing support services. As 95% of all Deaf children are born to hearing parents and for most hearing parents, their own Deaf child is the first Deaf person they have ever met. These same parents rely on professionals abt how to raise their Deaf child. It’s unfortunate to see many parents are misinformed about signed language. This is where the gaps begin.

    Why discourage the very sources of support that could feed their Deaf child’s mind, soul, and self-identity? We know ALL children have the opportunity to be bilingual but they are depriving their Deaf children that chance. We need to encourage and change the focus by allowing Deaf children the pleasure of learning ASL –that this will end the cycle perpetuating myths like how the media make it possible for the truth to be shoved aside in favor of stories that glorify programs focusing on “fixing” ears. Don’t get me wrong as I am not against the use of CIs, but information on CIs is well advertised while we continue to see ASL get the short shrift. Society and the media do not go far enough to encourage parents to acquire and use ASL for full access to life of language development. I don’t find programs that share how Deaf babies express themselves earlier through ASL than through spoken language. This information isn’t shared when not learning ASL at an early age, and not succeeding with language through oral results in language delays for many Deaf children. We know Deaf children performing at higher levels in both ASL and English is all due to early and consistent visual access to sign language. Why deny that opportunity? The fluent ASL users have higher achievement in academics, reading and writing, and social development. So it is important to stress that EARLY exposure to a language makes a difference. That is nurturing each Deaf child as a WHOLE individual and the importance of the child’s mind and spirit, instead of narrow focus on the child’s ears. We want to arm parents with information on the benefits of language rights using ASL from the very beginning…yes, regardless of amplification, speech or listening. Deaf children are to be celebrated and honored with language, using ASL.

  19. Studies do show that bilingualism has many advantages for kids, including those with hearing loss, however bilingualism for deaf kids doesn’t necessarily mean learning sign language plus one oral language to access those advantages. Studies indicate that when deaf children have access to sound, thanks to early diagnosis and early intervention, with their CI’s, they can learn a second oral language without detriment to the first language. Learning English as a second language assures that deaf kids in Spain have the same opportunities in the future as normal hearing kids. (see studies by Mark Guiberson, Phd. and article we published together in AgBell “Volta Voices”.) In our free program, “Allies in English, now in 12 cities in Spain,organized by t-oigo, we have shown continually, thanks to our 200 American study abroad students each year who work with deaf and hard of hearing children, that it is possible for deaf kids to become bilingual, and furthermore, that the key to learning two oral languages is motivation. Our volunteers play with kids in their homes, in an acoustically friendly environment, doing fun activities in English on a weekly basis. See our videos on our YouTube channel, videotoigo. Kids with hearing loss as young as 3 and 4 years old are speaking 3-4 oral languages.
    Learn more about “Allies in English” in English and Spanish in our program-specific blog ihearyou.t-oigo.com and in Spanish on our website.

    • I grew up oral, your comment isn’t as cracked up to be. Being a deaf person is about far more than what your mouth produces. A child speaks, so what? They’re still not hearing. They still might not be able to process language properly, there’s the exclusion, identity which is so important as someone gets older. Although I can sign these days, I seriously wished I learnt to sign when I was a child. I need it as a L1 language and it would have cut through some of the identity crisis later in life. Your comment doesn’t speak for me as a deaf adult. Instead it is views like yours that contributed to so much anguish.

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