Empowering Deaf Children with Language
Language is the most powerful tool we can give our children. The stronger the language foundation, regardless of the specific language, the more likely they are to succeed when reading, writing or communicating.
Parents are often the source of a child’s early acquisition of language. When a baby is born, s/he is exposed to a language from day one. Nonetheless, learning a first language is something every child does successfully, in a matter of a few years and without the need for formal lessons. Be it speech or sign language, the child’s brain is wired to acquire any language. Research suggests that the first six months are the most crucial to a child’s development of language skills.
Sign language is a mode of communication like speaking; it is not a language. American Sign Language (ASL) is a recognized language like Spanish, German, etc. ASL is a complete, complex language that employs signs made with the hands and other movements, including facial expressions and postures of the body.
I believe that parents should introduce deaf children to language as early as possible. The earlier any child is exposed to and begins to acquire language, the better that child’s communication skills will become. Generally, when a deaf child is born to hearing parents, the child’s exposure to language is delayed because the parents do not know sign language and can’t provide the child with the visual language they require. A deaf child who is born to deaf parents is at an advantage because they will be exposed to sign language from the start.
For a child to become fully competent in any language, exposure must begin as early as possible, preferably before school age. Native signers of ASL consistently display more accomplished sign language ability than non-native signers, again emphasizing the importance of early exposure and acquisition. A deaf child acquiring English as a language in school may demonstrate lower fluency than his/her hearing peers because they did not acquire language at an early age. Deaf children of deaf parents or hearing parents with fluency in sign language tend to acquire English more easily because s/he already has the foundation of a primary language (ASL).
Research has yet to prove that cochlear implants can benefit all deaf children because this technology is still relatively new. Recipients of the implant will always be classified as Deaf because they will not be able to hear when they remove the cochlear implant from their head when showering, engaging in physical activity, etc.
I strongly believe that regardless of their auditory status, all children must demonstrate a strong foundation in their primary language before trying to acquire a second language. Deaf children benefit from ASL because it is a visual language that provides solid background for conceptual meaning. Furthermore, it is critical that deaf children acquire English for the purpose of developing their literacy skills. Deaf children who communicate using their dominant language (ASL) can then learn English as a second language. I highly recommend that every child with or without a cochlear implant be provided with equal access to a dual language environment thus enabling them to use both languages for academic and social purposes. Exposure to a dual language environment, both at home and in an educational setting, will contribute to later success and unlimited opportunities for all children.#
Dr. Martin Florsheim is Principal of “47” The American Sign Language & English Secondary School