Bilingual-bicultural-bimodal Deaf people

Psycholinguist Dr. Francois Grosjean explains that "more than half of the world's population uses two or more languages (or dialects) in everyday life."

A cognitive neuroscientist Ellen Bialystok explains that bilingualism is something one has to use both languages all the time. Occasional use of a second language doesn't make one bilingual.

Bilingualism or multilingualism is no strange in our Deaf world. But, a signed language is usually our first language and modality. Bilingual-bimodal identity belongs to bilingual Deaf people who use both languages, growing up on a daily basis. It doesn't apply to English-ASL interpreters in general for a very different reason.

Bi/multilingualism and bi/multimodalism

For simplification, this post focuses on a child (deaf or hearing) growing up both bilingual and bimodal (signing/speaking and writing), specifically ASL and English. But, it applies the same to other signed and spoken languages. E.g. Auslan in Australia, ASL in North America (Canada and the U.S.), BSL in England, Japanese SL in Japan, and so on. Signed language is not universal, no different from spoken language.

Bilingual-bimodal language acquisition in ASL (or another signed language) and English (or another spoken language) has a few different levels of bilingualism and bimodalism in family:

1) ASL-speaking Deaf family who doesn't speak English but is fluent in written English.

2) And another type is a hearing child (a.k.a. CODA or KODA) who grows up speaking both ASL (or another language) and English (or another) with ASL-speaking Deaf parents, all with writing and reading abilities.

3) Another, a deaf child may grow up speaking ASL (or another) and can lipread/speak English (or another) plus writing/reading abilities.

Another, a Deaf family, a hearing child of Deaf parents, or a deaf child of hearing parents may speak two or more signed languages plus two or more spoken languages in written (and/or spoken) forms.

Brain and language facts

Studies show that 1) both sign language and speech language follow the same predetermined stages or timeline milestones of language development from babbling to prelinguistic development to full-fledged language.

2) There is a critical period of language development in both signed and spoken languages. If a child is deprived of a signed language through eye in name of speech through ear. This child has a high risk of language delay or deprivation during the critical period of language development.

3) When speaking a language whether it's signed (visual-spatial) or spoken (vocal-aural), it activates the same linguistic regions of the left brain, according to the neuroscience studies. It means that language is amodal.

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.

Patricia Ryan: Don't insist on English!

As Dr Petitto famously said that the brain doesn't discriminate between the lips and the hands, her works in neuroscience and linguistics show evidence that language is amodal, which means that language is brain-based, regardless of the modalities (manual speaking, writing, or vocal speaking)

Forbidding signed language in name of speech really leads to forbidding ASL/other (signed) languages in name of English (or French, Spanish, etc.).

The idea is that "the ability to communicate with everyone across cultures worldwide to share thoughts and different perspectives is a wonderful thing; "globalized" English may help break the barrier.""

In reality, it may be harmful. Globalization of one language is a disadvantage in that a thought in one language cannot see or perceive a viewpoint in another language. Its scale can be anything from as simple as a daily family affair to a large scale like a scientific breakthrough.

If it weren't for Deaf scholars, contributors and people in general with their full-fledged development of signed languages, the world would miss many significant scientific breakthroughs and answers to some linguistic theories, diversity, and perspectives.

There are many Deaf bilinguals along with hearing like-minded allies who have made significant contributions to the world in research and education on sign language. Their invaluable works help overcome phonocentric blindness.

How can we have access to communication and knowledge across cultures globally without losing any languages? A feasible solution is bilingualism and multilingualism. It benefits both individuals and societies.

Ted Hughes' "two feet" metaphor

In his writing, a poet Ted Hughes describes his partnership with another poet Sylvia Plath. He uses the metaphor "two feet" that refers to both of them influencing each other, like two cerebral hemispheres together. "I think that we were built to be -- we're like two feet. We need each other to get head."

This illustration describes bilingualism well. My observations of my child Juli's language development and acquisition from cooing to babbling to the first words in ASL and English fit this metaphor well.

Related posts

How bilingualism boosts the brain.

How Deaf people become bilingual and literate without ever hearing nor vocal-speaking.

How Deaf people gain enhanced vision through sign language from birth.

New to sign language? "Where do I start?" or "How do I start learning sign language?" This ASL Rookie guide lists some selected links to the tutorials for ASL beginners to get started and keep rolling. It may be a useful review for intermediate-level learners and ASL students as well.

Some tutorial pages are a mix of free and premium versions. Access to premium content and links below are available in the PatronPlus subscription. More links/posts will be added from time to time.

Are you able to carry everyday conversations in ASL? Are you a student in the intermediate levels and beyond, who wishes to boost up your signing skills? You've come to the selected tutorial series. (Some premium content are available to PatronPlus membership.)

This documentation project follows a child's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, from newborn to age five in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.