Should you learn sign language for your deaf child?

Giving birth to a deaf baby is like a French-speaking mother giving birth to a baby with a genetic evolution to speak Japanese. Deaf children are born to speak a different language in the medium of sign language. That's it. Nothing more.

Brain-boosted bilingualism or language loss?

Which would you rather choose: bilingualism or language delay for your child? Or, even better multilingualism or worse language-less?

The choice of cochlear implants and speech therapy at the same time forbidding sign language, are a common ideal desire. In reality, the result is a dreadful disaster that many deaf children have language delays and have struggles with language and literacy at later life.

ASL speakers, who have been exposed to the signed language at birth or at the earliest time and received good quality bilingual education, are highly successful in education and literacy.

Sure, a tad bit number of cochlear-implanted deaf have succeeded in speech and/or spoken language. But, some were given an opportunity with using sign language. This tiny number doesn't represent the majority in which 90% of all deaf children are born to hearing parents. A small number of deaf children also have succeeded speech merely with one hearing aid. Why cochlear implant when a hearing aid can do?

Cochlear implants or not. Hearing aids or not. Remember this: speech is not a language. It's a medium. Language is the crucial key. It's safer to give both languages. Should speech fails, language (ASL) doesn't fail through this medium (signlan). This way the child is guaranteed with either of them: bilingual in ASL and spoken/written English or bilingual in ASL and written English. No language loss.

Hearing loss, yes. But, it doesn't lose intelligence, language abilities, and literacy at all.

Brain has no preference

This fact should bring you a big relief to know. Neuroscience studies (Petitto) show that ASL activates the same linguistic regions of the left brain as English or any languages. What does it mean? Language is not central to speech.

I love repeatedly quoting Dr Petitto's statement: "The human brain does not discriminate between the hands and the tongue. People discriminate, but not our biological human brain." -- Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto (Gallaudet Today, Spring 2012, p. 17)

Bilingualism is known to have many benefits of cognition.

Wary of learning another language?

Not everyone is eager to learn another language. But, learning another language (ASL) is more convenient, not tougher, than sweating and laboring with your child's speech language to accomplish pronouncing a few spoken words at age three or five and dealing with these prior years of tantrums and hair-pulling impatience.

On the other hand, those fortunate and blessed ASL-speaking three-year-olds busily argue with parents about where to go, what to eat, wanting to play with certain friends -- as fluently as any English-speaking three-year-olds. Even my hearing 2.5 years old whose first language is ASL since birth asked me for a specific Netflix show, asked me to buy a Curious George app, informed me that the ladybug is hiding, and so on.

Take it easy. Your baby doesn't know any language at birth, so are you. Start learning the new language together with community supports as your baby's language development isn't ahead of you yet.

So, you both can learn the language together from scratch and keep it up with your child who will acquire much naturally and more quickly than you. But, your child would be forever grateful to you, as I have commonly heard from ASL-speaking people whose hearing parents decide to learn the signed language. They said they are blessed, deeply grateful, and so lucky.

Brain says the same thing again

Studies show that children (whether hearing or deaf) exposed to sign language undergo the same language development milestones as children exposed to speech language -- from babbling to a one-word stage to a two-word stage.

So, better start learning ASL with your baby from birth and stay on with the child's language milestones.

Mother Earth's natural answer to language

Once deaf children acquire a language (ASL) naturally on par with hearing children acquiring a spoken language. Then they can acquire English (at least, written if not spoken) as a second language in the same way hearing children acquire English as a second language.

A decision over speech as a sole method for deaf infants most likely harm the critical period of language development should speech and/or hearing not succeed in language development (not a uncommon incidence).

Even if a child succeeds in speech (though not common), she/he may still miss an opportunity of being bilingual in ASL/English as other children take advantage of. On the other hand, she/he would miss the two-year window of critical language acquisition if the natural language (ASL) is taken away from the deaf baby.

Author: Jolanta Lapiak. Published online, July 2013.

Recommended further reading

Harlane Lane, et al. "Bilingual and Bicultural Education for Deaf Children." A Journey into the Deaf-World. California: DawnSignPress. 1996.

Harlane Lane, et al. "The Hearing Agenda II: Eradicating the Deaf-World." A Journey into the Deaf-World. California: DawnSignPress. 1996. Pp 379-407.

Look at Swedish model of deaf education in Sweden. It is one of the few best programs and most successes in Deaf education.

Harlan Lane. "The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf community."

ASL Rose:

"You may not be ready, but your child is... The importance of early language access for children who are deaf or hard of hearing." By Stacy Abrams and Bettie Petersen.