Language Options for a Deaf Baby or Child
There are 3 major language options in the United States when deciding how to communicate with a Deaf baby or child. These methods include ASL, English and Bilingualism. Nearly 88% of Deaf children in hearing homes will grow up with an English only method. Only 12% of Deaf children with hearing parents will grow up with a visual base language including ASL and English. It should be noted that there is a difference between ASL and the signing that is typically referred to as “baby signs” when the child acquires their first language.
For an ASL only method, typically the baby is around Deaf people. In this instance, every time someone is around the baby or child, they are signing. With full ASL, the child will pick up on the visual information in the language along with its usage and grammar the same way a hearing child would pick up on spoken language. This is not to say the parents would simply teach the Deaf baby or child “baby signs”, which are signs used to represent objects around the environment such as “mom”, “milk” or “more”. ASL has its own grammatical and syntactic structure and therefore it is best that a Deaf child be around those who are fluent in the language and have ties to the Deaf community. In the same way that a child should learn a language from someone who is fluent in that language, ASL should be taught preferably by someone who acquired ASL as their first language.
The English only method is typically aided by the use of a hearing aid or a cochlear implant. Hearing aids are used for children who are Hard of Hearing as they amplify sounds, they are not meant for those that are profoundly Deaf (Meier 12). Cochlear implants are typically used for those who are profoundly Deaf since the surgery will destroy any residual hearing the individual has. Cochlear implants work by bypassing the cochlea and implanting a device in the brain that will transmit sounds directly into the brain. A cochlear implant is typically thought of as a “cure for deafness”, but this is not the case. In some instances, cochlear implant stimuli can be painful and in most instances the sound is not as clear as natural hearing and is typically mechanical in nature.
When using the English only method, aided by a cochlear implant or a hearing aid, the Deaf child will go through many visits to the audiologist and speech therapy. In speech therapy, the emphasis is not put on the understanding of a word, instead it is place on the pronunciation. Most times, the child will work on pronouncing a word for hours straight with the speech therapist, but would not be able to describe to you what that word means at the end of the session. In most cases, the medical community suggests that the parent not sign around the child or allow them to gesture in fear that they will become too comfortable doing that and will no longer want to learn to speak. Deaf adults will typically refer back to the time they were going through speech therapy and relay frustration with the entire experience. The parents in most cases are pushed by the doctors to always practice speech at home and to not give the child what they want until they are able to pronounce it correctly.
During the speech therapy, there are different methods that are used to teach the child to speak. Focus is given on mouth shape and movement. Again, while the child is learning how to shape their mouth properly in order to utter a word, they are not given any context to that word. The exercises can become meaningless except for their ability to read a word out loud. The entire process turns into simple mimicry and parroting for the child who can become frustrated with the lack of actual communication that is happening.
Bilingualism, which is a combination of ASL and English is the most appropriate method for children that are growing up in a hearing environment. While most people assume that language is an either-or option when it comes to raising a child, ASL English bilingualism proves that to not be the case. ASL itself uses English in some cases when fingerspelling is required for nouns such as names, people or places, as well as clarification on a specific sign or situation. In this instance, ASL is used around the child from birth so they are able to pick up on the language.
While baby signs are good for the child to initially learn things that they may want or ask for, it is not a full communication system. The parents and those that will be around the child frequently should take ASL classes in order to learn more about the language and the culture. Most ASL classes teach about Deaf Culture as part of their curriculum as well. Once someone learns about these things, it opens their mind up to not just seeing the child as having a disability, but rather a Deaf Identity.
The vocabulary and grammatical context that the child will learn through the use of ASL will serve as their base language. This language base will aid in the development of learning to read and write in English (Baker).When the child has a visual base language from which to draw context, learning to read and write English will become easier for the child. Though Deafness is not the same in all instances, some children will be able to learn to speak English later on using the knowledge that they have of the language. It is more important that a child learns what the words mean than how to properly pronounce the words themselves.
There are many advantages to teaching a Deaf child ASL from a young age. Mainly, having a base language to learn from will help the child acquire a second language such as English (Meier 15). The critical period hypothesis states that there is a critical period of time during the child’s development when language is best absorbed (Allen et al. 4). During this time, the child will learn everything that they need to know about their primary language. In most cases for hearing children in the US, that is English. The child is able to pick up on what they hear adults talking about and how they speak. This period is noted to be between the ages of 2 and puberty (Meier 6). While the critical period is not the only time for a child to learn language, it is the period that typically sees the best results for native-like fluency.
The critical period includes a rapid development of the brain in many different areas. While language is seen as something that can always be acquired later on in life, this is not something that we are able to study in hearing children. The idea of not communicating with a child for years seems cruel and abusive, yet at the same time it is being done without thought to many Deaf children. When a visual language option is not offered for a Deaf child from a young age, they are in turn being denied access to language.
Early and continued language access has proven to be beneficial in a number of ways. Communication with a child in the early years of life and development is essential to their learning throughout their life (Meier 14). This is something that has been proven to not only effect the early years of language development, but also the later years of learning as well. Acquisition of language is not the only part of the child’s learning that is impaired by lack of early communication. Cognitive and social structures of the brain have also been proven to be effected by this (Allen et al. 7). A child who is unable to communicate will be unable to socialize with peers or anyone else in their environment. In cases where a child learns to properly communicate, this can reduce frustration and temperament issues.
Similar to autism, a lot of frustration comes from a child who is unable to properly communicate. Autism is looked at differently because it is seen as a communication issue between the child and the parent when the parent will try anything to communicate with their child. With a Deaf child, it is not seen as the parent not trying to find the best way to communicate, rather it is seen as a disability that the child has that cannot be helped. Instead of looking at a Deaf child as one with a disability, the child should be looked at as if they are in a different language group.