The Critical Need for Providing Early Visual Language to the Deaf Child

Author: J. Freeman King, Ed., Utah State University.

Research has indicated that the language areas of the brain have no preference for language input and that the most accessible pathway for full access to linguistic information for many deaf children is through the visual channel. A visual language, such as American Sign Language, is a natural language system, functions independently from spoken language, and has a fully developed grammatical system. Delay in acquiring a first language produces poorer over-all language performance, and without complete access to language during early development, it is difficult for deaf and hard of hearing children's language acquisition to be on par with that of hearing children.

American Sign Language (ASL) is often withheld from deaf children in the belief that it interferes with speech development. However, there is no evidence that using American Sign Language with deaf and hard of hearing children hinders or prevents spoken language development; in fact, proficiency in ASL has been shown to positively influence spoken language development and the development of English literacy in deaf students. Language is the driving force that facilitates spoken language, not the mode of communication.

A 10-year research synthesis by Marc Marschark on the language development of children who are deaf directly addresses questions related to the use of a visual language. For example:

1. It is important to note that there is no evidence to suggest that the early use of gestures or signs (ASL) by deaf children hampers their development of spoken English.

2. The available evidence indicates that, on average, deaf children who learn sign language (ASL) as preschoolers show better academic achievement and social adjustment during the school years, and superior gains in English literacy.

3. Most investigations of language development in children who are deaf have examined the development of either sign language or spoken language, but not their possible interaction. Preliminary findings suggest that programs that combine sign language (ASL) and spoken English (bilingual education programs) may prove more effective than programs that use either spoken or sign language alone. In other words, sign language and spoken language should not be considered as mutually exclusive alternatives, but as potentially complementary strategies for encouraging language development in deaf children. Studies conducted by Christie Yoshinaga-Itano , and others, further suggest that there is a critical period for language development in the first years of life, and a longer critical period for speech development through the preschool years. The focus on language accessibility during the early months of life, therefore, becomes the top priority.

With this thought in mind, it only seems logical that a multi-sensory approach should be utilized. Certainly, deaf children acquire language in their own unique ways, but multi-sensory approaches to language acquisition ensure that when one pathway is less effective, another pathway can be utilized as an avenue for language learning. Early research in bilingual education found cognitive benefits from learning two languages; bilinguals have been shown to have greater cognitive flexibility and greater sensitivity to linguistic meaning than monolingual children. Children who are deaf have the possibility of experiencing similar cognitive benefits from learning American Sign Language and a spoken language through print and listening, as well as speaking, when appropriate.

There are linguistic and educational benefits of learning both American Sign Language and spoken/written English. Deaf children can acquire two languages simultaneously when adult language models follow language allocation strategies, where the amount of exposure to a spoken/written language is increased as the child first acquires visual language competence. ASL can function as a first language, which supports the learning of spoken/written English as a second language. On the whole, bilingual research has shown that fluency in a first language is a strong predictor of second language skill: competence in a second language is a function of proficiency in a first language.

Certainly, early language learning has ramifications for academic achievement. Deaf and hard of hearing children underperform in comparison with hearing children of similar ages in most content areas, and especially in the areas of reading and written English. This has not changed regardless of the use of various communication methodologies, and the invention of new hearing technologies.

Despite uneven outcomes, some cochlear implant teams are now advising families of children with implants to participate only in auditory-verbal therapy, and in doing so, are ignoring the enormous potential of a visual pathway to learning. The lack of early and fully accessible visual language exposure may be a contributing factor to the low levels of reading achievement in the deaf population. Delay of full language access can also have a negative impact on not only cognition and academic achievement, but on social and emotional health, as well.

In contrast to children using auditory-verbal therapy, most children from deaf families enter school having already acquired a complete first language as infants and toddlers. These children tend to perform similarly to what is expected of hearing children at the same age. Given signing adult language models, deaf children with hearing parents can also acquire visual language competence and become literate.

Hearing parents of young deaf children should be given an understanding of the critical need for providing early visual language for their child. These parents are often placed in an untenable position regarding educational and communication methodologies. Research and common sense suggests the following:

1. All linguistic input from birth should include visual input, auditory input, use of signs, gestures, facial expressions, voice, and whatever will facilitate early communication with the child. The deaf child should not be denied any means of communication that will facilitate the development of language.

2. Early accessible communication interaction between the infant and parent is absolutely necessary for the child to acquire language. No matter how much hearing loss the child has, visual input assures the child's early accessibility to communication and language.

3. Early accessible communication directly affects the brain wiring necessary for the child's language development. Meaningful interactions from birth that are repeated and accessible result in the formation of "neural language connections" that stay in place, Neural connections that are not used (inaccessibility to language) are eliminated.

4. There is a difference between acquiring a language and learning a language. A deaf child exposed only to a spoken language, even with a hearing aid or cochlear implant, is not necessarily able to naturally acquire the language necessary to achieve native fluency that will ultimately lead to literacy in the English language.

5. All input from birth provides opportunities to see how the child responds to auditory and/or visual input. The idea is not to "choose a method for a child" but to allow the child let us know the best and most successful ways to communicate with him or her. This can only be done in the context of "all input" to see how the child responds best to auditory or visual input or a combinations of both, then to follow the child's lead.

6. For children who might be receiving a cochlear implant, "all input" from birth, including the use of signs, provides assured language input and an assured language base during the early months of life. A strong early visual language base can only help the child with continued language and speech development.

7. All input from birth provides time for parents to learn more about communication methodology possibilities and other issues related to their child being deaf without losing accessible language input. It is not simply a matter of presenting communication methodology choices to parents.

Often parents report they have been given communication choices, but in reality have been given one or only a very few "informational presentations." When presented with options soon after the diagnosis of deafness and expected to make immediate either-or choices, hearing parents most typically choose "speech," because they are hearing parents, and expect or want the child to act, think, and speak as they do. At the time of diagnosis when hearing parents are typically frightened and confused and when hearing perspectives, values, and speech are offered, of course speech is the option that will be chosen.

Hearing parents deserve to have opportunities to explore issues related to early language accessibility and acquisition presented in a non-rushed, non-pressured way in a supportive, trusting environment. This can be accomplished by having early interventionists who assist the parents in investigating ways of maximizing all avenues of communication and learning. These early interventionists should assist the parents in learning about the culture of the Deaf and American Sign Language, arranging to meet Deaf persons and Deaf mentors and other parents in order to discuss common problems and solutions. In short, to be given information, insights, and skills that will help them provide early, full and accessible communication and language for their child in ways that will most appropriately optimize the child's communication and language development, and to wholeheartedly accept and take great pride and joy in their child who is deaf.

The deaf child should be offered a quality educational program that will truly prepare him/her to compete as an equal in the hearing world. This does not mean or suggest that the adequacy and success of deaf children be measured by how closely they resemble their hearing peers, but that they are educated to become successful Deaf human beings, not imitations of hearing people.

Author: J. Freeman King, Ed., Utah State University. Reprinted, with permission from the Essential Educator,


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The second-year and third-year documentation continues to follow the same child's language and phonological acquisition and literacy development in ASL on a weekly basis from the one-word stage to two-word and multiple utterances.

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These posts on ASL-English bilingualism, language acquisition, and bilingual education may be of an interest for parents who raise a bilingual-bimodal child in ASL (or another signed language) and English (or another written and/or spoken language of its respective) as well as informative and educational for ASL specialists, educators, and professionals.