Every 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.
(Photo by David Fulmer via Flickr)