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 and read/write French. Deaf children are born to speak a different language in a different modality. That's it. Nothing more. Just simply natural and normal.

Your choice would be simply to learn a new language and embrace the child's part of the world's diversity or to put a burden of the world on the child's shoulder through medicalization and years of therapy.

"Difference is of the essence of humanity. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace -- respect for diversity." – John Hume (1937-2020)

Medicalization

Are you a hearing parent of a deaf child? Most likely a doctor is one of the first "professionals" you meet. Next thing you may be referred to a specialist ranging from an audiologist to another medical professional. You're surrounded by ignorance, fear, doubt, grief, and stress.

What they will most likely recommend is a cochlear implant and speech therapy. It sounds like a reasonable solution. But, but, but. Many parents of deaf newborns have no idea unless they decide to research all information.

What many audist professionals won't likely tell you some critical things you should know. And, a deaf child has the rights to a fair, fully-informed decision that a parent makes at the child's earliest time of life.

After reading this, do your own further research. Further resources are provided at the end of this post.

Stats of deaf children enrolled in oral/aural and ASL programs over lifetime
Statistics

Brain-boosted bilingualism or language loss?

Which would you consider: bilingualism or language delay for your child? Or, even better multilingualism or worse language-less? The brain is indifferent to speech and signing. But, it's sensitive to language acquisition timeline.

The choice of cochlear implants and speech therapy at the same time forbidding sign language is a common ideal desire in the medical field during the critical period of language development. In reality, the potential result is a dreadful disaster that many deaf children have language delay and face struggles with language and literacy at later life.

ASL speakers, who have been exposed to the signed language from 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 to some various degrees. But, some were given an opportunity with using sign language. This small number doesn't represent the rest of the marginalized deaf children with CI who have language delays in either languages (e.g. ASL and English).

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 medium. Signed language is not a tool. It's language. Language is the crucial key. It's safer to give both languages.

Should speech fails, language (plus second language) doesn't fail through the medium of signing. This way the child is guaranteed with bilingualism in ASL and spoken/written English or bilingual in ASL and written English. No language loss.

The brain has no preference

These quick facts based on hard sciences such as neuroscience and linguistics should bring you a big relief to know.

1) 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)

2) 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.

3) Signed languages have all linguistic features in linguistics as found in spoken languages -- phonology (the smallest units of language), morphology (how words are formed), syntax, and so on.

These three things -- the linguistic regions of the brain, the similar language developmental milestones, and the existence of sign-language linguistics -- are an overwhelming evidence that language is amodal. Signed and spoken languages are perfectly normal and equal.

Bilingualism is known to have a bunch of cognitive and linguistic benefits. In the professional medical fields, sign language is often treated as a substitute of speech, a support to speech, a secondary method, and such. It's a dangerous mindset. Be mindful of this.

Fear of sign language's interference with speech?

Fear not. Studies show no evidence of sign language's interference with speech development. But, one should be concerned about speech's interference with the language development by depriving a deaf child with normal eyes from visual language. See many hapless deaf children with literacy and language delays. Not because they are deaf, just because they are deprived of language through eye. Give them both languages.

Deaf children read and write English as another language as fluently as hearing children, given that they acquire a language (ASL) from birth and go through the language acquistion milestones from manual babbling to first word and two-word utterances to full-fledged language. In parallel, they also learn English through fingerspelling and reading despite various degrees of speech skills.

A first language supports a second language. And two language enhance each other. Bilingualism is beautiful and highly beneficial. Deaf baby must have an access to language with its normal eyesight and acquire a language (Ameslan/ASL) first before or in parallel she can acquire a second language (English, especially written).

Who would want to train a deaf child's speech (modality) to accomplish producing only a few spoken words at age three and missing the first crucial two years window of normal language acquisition and thousands of signed words?

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 struggling child's speech language to accomplish pronouncing a few spoken words at age three and dealing with these prior years of tantrums and hair-pulling impatience. Hey, look at the privileged parents signing up a "baby sign language" class for their hearing babies.

On the other hand, those fortunate and blessed ASL-speaking three-year-olds busily argue with ASL-speaking Deaf 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 was hiding, tried to convince me to give her more candies, 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.

After all, the majority of hearing college people start learning a signed language at age 20s and onward, sometimes in teenage years. And they don't have deaf babies. So, welcome yourself to learning ASL with your perfectly healthy 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 two-year window of critical language development should speech and/or hearing not succeed in language development (not a uncommon incidence) while the natural language (ASL) is taken away from the deaf baby.

Even if a deaf child succeeds in speech to some degree (though not always), she/he may still miss an opportunity of being bilingual in ASL/English as other children take advantage of.

Stories

"I must thank you for this site, it has been SO helpful and encouraging. My husband and I have 5 children, our youngest born profoundly Deaf. We knew nothing about Deaf Culture when our daughter was born. We were given a lot of information on how to help her "overcome her deafness" (all from medical community). However, no information was given on ASL and Deaf Culture. This site has been such a help over the past 19 months as our family learns ASL and becomes bilingual. Our daughter is such a gift, and at 19 months old she is far exceeding any language milestone of my hearing children. Thank you for this amazing resource! My family very much appreciates you all's work. Thank you, [..]" -- Email to Handspeak, September 12, 2019.

Posted July 2013. Updated 2021.

Recommended further readings

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.

Snoddon, Kristin. "American Sign Language and Early Literacy: Research as Praxis." https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/19092/1/Snoddon_Kristin_200911_PhD_thesis.pdf

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

"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. http://www.nmsd.k12.nm.us/outreach/documents/MeetingtheLanguageNeedsofToddlers.pdf

"Reducing the harms of zero tolerance to the use of alternative approaches"

Copyright by the authors: Tom Humphries, Poorna Kushalnagar, Gaurav Mathur, Donna Jo Napoli, Carol Padden, Christian Rathmann, Scott R Smith.

Credits/Source: Harm Reduction Journal 2012, 9:16. Published: 2 April 2012. http://www.harmreductionjournal.com/content/9/1/16/abstract

Children acquire language without instruction as long as they are regularly and meaningfully engaged with an accessible human language. Today, 80% of children born deaf in the developed world are implanted with cochlear devices that allow some of them access to sound in their early years, which helps them to develop speech.

However, through early childhood, brain plasticity changes and children who have not acquired a first language in the early years might never be completely fluent in any language. If they miss this critical period for exposure to a natural language, their subsequent development of the cognitive activities that rely on a solid first language might be underdeveloped, such as literacy, memory organization, and number manipulation.

An alternative to speech-exclusive approaches to language acquisition exists in the use of sign languages such as American Sign Language (ASL), where acquiring a sign language is subject to the same time constraints of spoken language development. Unfortunately, so far, these alternatives are caught up in an "either-or" dilemma, leading to a highly polarized conflict about which system families should choose for their children, with little tolerance for alternatives by either side of the debate and widespread misinformation about the evidence and implications for or against either approach.

The success rate with cochlear implants is highly variable. This issue is still debated, and as far as we know, there are no reliable predictors for success with implants.

Yet families are often advised not to expose their child to sign language. Here absolute positions based on ideology create pressures for parents that might jeopardize the real developmental needs of deaf children.

What we do know is that cochlear implants do not offer accessible language to many deaf children. By the time it is clear that the deaf child is not acquiring spoken language with cochlear devices, it might already be past the critical period, and the child runs the risk of becoming linguistically deprived.

Linguistic deprivation constitutes multiple personal harms as well as harms to society (in terms of costs to our medical systems and in loss of potential productive societal participation).

Related posts

Raising a bilingual-bimodal child.

How does language deprivation occur in deaf children?

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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.

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Expressing needs and wants

  1. Making commands or requests

Talking about activities

  1. Frequency of time: how often?

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.)

Stories, poems, performance arts, etc. in sign language.

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.