Raising a bilingual child
The online documentary "Baby Talk in ASL" overlaps two different levels of bilingualism in family: one completely native signlan family who doesn't speak English at all but is fluent in written English.
And the other type is a bilingual-bimodal child (a.k.a. CODA or KODA) who grows up speaking both native ASL (or another language) and English (or another).
Psycholinguist Dr. Francois Grosjean explains that "more than half of the world's population uses two or more languages (or dialects) in everyday life."
Bilingualism is common in our eyeing world. But, a signed language is usually our first language/modality.
Each culture in the eyeing world (along with the hearing world on Earth, which we sometimes fun-lovingly call it "Eyeth") has its own language -- Auslan in Australia, Ameslan/ASL in Canada and the U.S., BSL in England, Japanslan in Japan, Polishlan in Poland, and so on.
Most of my relatives and family members who grow up in a signlan environment are bilingual (multilingual to some degree). It is no doubt that my child will be another part of the generations of children who grow up bilingual.
Studies show that both sign language and speech language follow the same predetermined stages of language development from babbling to prelinguistic development to full-fledged language.
Studies also show that bilingualism has cognitive benefits, such as multitasking, wider perspectives, more creative thinking skills, better literacy skills, and more. These benefits occur in bilingualism in any two languages, including ASL and English.
A cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok explains that bilingualism is something one has to use both languages all the time. Occasional use doesn't make one bilingual.
From conception to birth
Out of trillions over a lifetime, a lucky little X or a Y spermatozoan swam the fastest to the "sun" of life (or ovum). The two fused into a whole singularity. Fertilized.The mother underwent some moments of vomits.. fatigue.. a sonogram appointment.. glows.. unfit shoes.. another appointment for a diabete test after failing the first when vomitted.. being forgetful (like misplacing a key or breaking off a side mirror of the vehicle when driving backward through the garage door).. gaining bigger and bigger. Been there?
Talking with baby-in-utero in sign language
Parents in our culture have their ways of communication with their babies-in-utero.
Some fathers, family members, and friends talk in sign language to babies-in-utero. It is simply a symbol and an expression of love and bond.
It's not that babies-in-utero cannot listen, but babies can sense rhythmical movements when their to-be-mothers talk in a signed language.
Of course, touch is also another form of loving communication with the babies-in-utero who might sense the loved ones' touches.
On the inside, the little beloved inside practiced moving hands -- reflexes, at least. She/he may sense light and darkness surrounding her/him through the tummy skin. The baby may sense vibrations (e.g. heartbeat, music) through his/her body.
Then the labor began.
Communicating during a labor
In the labor room at a hospital, a nurse who was assigned to me knew ASL. Her ASL skill was intermediate, but it was conversational-able. And, our conversations were basically smooth. She was with me till the delivery time. I loved this convenience of communication.
It's a girl! Or, a boy!
During the labor, I instructed the doctor and the nurses that I did not want them to proclaim, "it's a boy! or a girl!" for three major reasons.
First, it's a cliche and I don't relate to this cultural custom. Second, I didn't want to find out through a third party. I'd rather be one of the first persons to know. Third and most of all, I wanted to see the baby for the first time for who s/he is without the label attached to him/her.
Many ASL parents also choose not to find out through a third party. What they did was to teach their doctor or whoever performed the delivery a couple of ASL words boy and girl.
That is, when the baby pops out, the doctor can proclaim in ASL for everyone to know firsthand.
Clearing Up Common Myths About What It Means to Be Bilingual
Contributed/written by Nataly Kelly
Chief Research Officer, Common Sense Advisory
Reprint permission 2011
"It takes more than having two hands to be a good pianist. It takes more than knowing two languages to be a good translator or interpreter."
These are the closing words of a recent piece by Professor Francois Grosjean in the Psychology Today blog.
Grosjean is Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics at Neuchatel University in Switzerland. He is a world-recognized expert on bilingualism and the author of three books on the topic. His latest book, Bilingual: Life and Reality, came out in 2010. I recently had the pleasure of conducting an interview with him on bilingualism, translation, and interpreting.
Nataly Kelly: What is the myth that you most commonly encounter about bilingualism?
Francois Grosjean: There are many myths, I'm afraid: bilinguals are rare and have equal and perfect knowledge of their languages; real bilinguals have acquired their two or more languages in childhood and have no accent in either of them; all bilinguals are also bicultural; switching between languages is a sign of laziness in bilinguals; bilinguals are born translators or interpreters; bilingualism will delay language acquisition in children and have negative effects on their development; and so on.
NK: What advice would you give to people who say, "I'm too old to learn a language"?
FG: Some people believe you cannot be a "real" bilingual if you have not acquired your two languages in infancy or at least as a young child. In fact, one can become bilingual at any time during one's life -- as a child, as an adolescent, or as an adult. There is no upper age limit for acquiring a new language and then continuing one's life with two or more languages. Nor is there any limit in the fluency that one can attain in the new language with the exception of pronunciation skills.
NK: What about people who say, "I just don't have a talent for languages?"
FG: We are all language communicators and being bilingual is simply communicating in two or more languages. The crucial factor underlying becoming bilingual is the need for another language -- the need to interact with others, to study or work, to take part in social activities and so on. If the need is present, then language acquisition will usually take place. This is true of children as it is of adults. Of course, this is different from learning a language in a formal setting and doing grammar exercises and vocabulary list learning. However, this formal learning can be helped greatly if the language being acquired is used in everyday life.
NK: Is it true that some people are more gifted than others when it comes to learning languages? Or, are they simply more motivated to learn?
FG: There must be a need to acquire another language. Other factors must also be present: enough language input and use; the help of family, friends, colleagues, and the community in general; traditional language learning for some; and positive attitudes towards the language and culture in question, as well as towards bilingualism.
NK: Do you think that more people will become bilingual as time goes on? Or, do you think that the advances in translation technology will discourage people from wanting to learn other languages?
FG: I believe that there is room for both. On the one hand, being able to communicate with someone is his or her language is the optimal solution. And in some situations such as living in a new country, you simply don't have the choice. You need to become bilingual. On the other hand, we do need better language technology so that we can communicate, to some extent at least, with people whose languages we do not know.
NK: Is it true that people from English-speaking countries are "the worst" in terms of learning foreign languages?
FG: What is true is that the people living in so-called "monolingual" countries where millions of people only speak one language (the United States, France, Germany, Japan, etc.) do not have the need to acquire another language. And even if they do learn a second language at school, they rarely have the opportunity to practice it, unfortunately.
NK: So many people forget a language after they've studied it, due to lack of use. How much of a language stays with us after we've forgotten it?
FG: This is a badly studied aspect of language learning but it would appear that much more remains than we would have thought at first. The language just needs to be reactivated and aspects of it relearned.
NK: You have written extensively about the rights of deaf children to gain proficiency in the majority language, at least in the written form. How common is bilingualism among the Deaf community, and what are the biggest barriers for deaf children to obtain proficiency in two languages?
FG: If one accepts that one can be bilingual in a sign language and the written form of a spoken language, then many Deaf people are bilingual. The problem is that with the advent of cochlear implants, many deaf children are not taught sign language and hence are not bilingual. In my "The right of the deaf child to grow up bilingual" which has been translated into some 35 languages, I make a strong case for allowing deaf children to grow up with two languages, the majority language of the country or region they live in and the sign language used by the Deaf community they naturally belong to.
NK: The market for translation and interpreting has been growing steadily, even throughout the global economic downturn. Due to this growth in demand, many in the industry are concerned about the qualifications of the translators and interpreters hired to do the work. In many cases, there have been reports of individuals being hired who are not truly proficient in both languages at the levels required for this kind of work. What is your view on the level of bilingualism required for translation and interpreting work, compared to other types of jobs that require bilingualism?
FG: In two posts on my blog, "Desperately seeking a final translation" and "Those incredible interpreters", I stress the "special bilingual" nature of professional translators and interpreters. For example, translators must have a complete set of translation equivalents in the other language (at least in the domains concerned). They must also know the two languages (or dialects) fluently, at all linguistic levels, and they must avoid all the usual translation traps such as false friends and literal translations. As for interpreters, in addition to all this, they must have all the linguistic and cognitive skills that allow them to go from one language to the other, either simultaneously or successively. It is no wonder that translators and interpreters are considered special bilinguals!
Patricia Ryan: Don't insist on English!
Being able to communicate with everyone across cultures worldwide to share thoughts and different perspectives is a wonderful thing. "Globalized" English may help break the barrier.
But, it's also a barrier. Globalization of one language is a disadvantage in that a thought in one language cannot see what another can see a perspective in its other language. Its scale can be from as simple as a daily family affair to a large scale like a scientific breakthrough.
How can we have access to communication across cultures globally without losing any languages? A feasible solution is bilingualism and pluralingualism. It benefits both individuals and societies.
It is also true for signlan (modality) and its languages (ASL/Ameslan, Auslan, JSL/Japanslan, etc.). For example, signlan linguistics has helped break through some struggles in linguistic theories as well as it has provided many new perspectives about human language, cognition, etc.
There are many highly bilingual, well-educated Deaf people in both ASL and written English. They articulate both of these languages eloquently. Why? They have been exposed to both languages from birth, especially with first access to signlan.
Today there are many excellent Deaf bilinguals along with hearing like-minded allies who have made significant contributions to the world in research and education. Their invaluable works help overcome phonocentric blindness.
Bilingualism and cochlear implants in deaf children
A large number of deaf babies have received cochlear implants and are commonly forbidden, discouraged, and/or prevented from using sign language, their primary and natural modality of communication.
On the other hand, nearly every parent is encouraged to use sign language with their hearing babies for more efficient communication. And, this "Baby Sign", as they claim, boosts babies' linguistic and cognitive benefits.
"The greatest irony." Illustrated by artist Maureen Klusza, 2007(?).
Neuroscience studies show that both languages (ASL and English) activate the same regions of the left brain that is responsible for language. Speech is not central to language.
Language milestones in signlan and speech are maturationally controlled; that is, Deaf children exposed to signed languages from birth acquire these languages on an identical maturational timeline as hearing children acquire spoken languages. (Dr. Pettito)
Sign language does not hinder or cause a speech delay. It is simply another language. It is no more different than a baby acquiring both spoken French (or any other spoken language) and English.
Using ASL (in the form of signlan) does not contest with English (in the form of speech), quite the opposite. That is bilingualism and interaction that boosts literacy and language development in both languages.
Thus the risks
Hearing children are born with either choices of modalities. However, deaf children are born naturally with one choice of modality (signlan), which is often oppressed.
If a child fails speech development on par with hearing standard, it may be not too late to learn ASL. But, it'll be late for the critical period of language development in infants and toddlers. It is a sensitive timing milestone.
Limited hearing in deaf children with cochlear implants with no access to sign language hinders the development of language to the fullest, especially during the critical period of language. After the critical period, a deaf child may likely have some difficulty with language acquisition in either English and ASL (signlan). Vicious cycle.
Natural solution: bilingualism-bimodalism
A deaf child, who receives full access to language (e.g. ASL) in visual-spatial modality, will have a normal performance with written English as a second language.
Remember ASL doesn't hinder written English development, but rather it enhances English skills as a second language. Deaf people who are highly fluent in English are bilingual in ASL and written English.
A deaf child who does well with partial hearing via cochlear implants may still benefit from bilingualism using both languages (ASL and English). Brain doesn't favor one over another. Language is language for the brain.
Bilingualism-bimodalism (even if speech doesn't thrive) is a wiser decision than monolingualism and speech alone, should speech doesn't succeed.
Most Deaf are bilinguals when provided full access to signlan at the earliest and then fluent written language follows. They are quite intelligent, beautiful and vibrant. Embrace diversity.
Recommended further readings
Psycholinguist Dr. Francois Grosjean's The right of the deaf child to grow up bilingual.
ASL/English Bilingual Programming and Early Childhood Education: Frequently Asked Questions by Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center, Gallaudet University.