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The Controversy About Deaf Children Learning Sign Language

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Should Deaf Children Learn Sign Language?

Controversy has raged among educators and professionals working with children with profound hearing loss about whether deaf children benefit from learning sign language. Whereas some argue that sign is the natural language of the deaf, others believe that sign may inhibit the ability to learn vocal and written language.

Approximately 90 percent of parents of deaf children are hearing (i.e., not deaf themselves), and they are often caught in the middle of conflicting advice about whether or not their children should learn sign language.

On one side, some schools and organizations, such as the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, support the development of speech and listening skills in children with hearing loss. They exclude sign language from their model of optimal learning.

At the other end of the spectrum, deaf organizations such as the Deaf Bilingual Coalition and the National Association of the Deaf assert that deaf children have the right to learn what they consider to be their natural language—sign.

Leading researchers in the field of deafness from institutions such as Gallaudet University, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), and La Trobe University in Australia, give several reasons why both children with hearing loss and their parents can benefit from learning and communicating in sign language from an early age. According to NTID, there is no research available that proves that learning sign language interferes with English language acquisition or learning how to read or write in English.

Sign language is the natural language of the deaf

I have been involved in several education programs for deaf adults who were recent immigrants and/or adults who needed language and life skills training. I have observed that some deaf adults who have not been exposed to a formal sign language develop their own natural “home signs” to talk with their families. According Dr. Maree Madden, an interpreter and interpreter trainer, some studies have found that children who are exposed to sign language communicate with their parents with “manual babbling.”

Interviews with deaf people, and parents of deaf children

The belief that sign impedes language acquisition

According to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), some professionals in the field of deafness believe that if a child learns to sign, the child will be inhibited from learning vocal and written language. The NTID says that there is no published evidence that learning sign impedes the acquisition of spoken and written language.

The interests of the deaf child and his parents may best be served by accepting that he is a deaf person, with an elaborate cultural and linguistic heritage that can enrich his parent's life as it will his own.

— Harlan Lane, professor of psychology and author of "The Mask of Benevolence"

The studies quoted below suggest that sign language provides deaf children with a point of reference from which they can learn English. When a child knows a sign and understands its concept, it is easier for the child to understand and learn an English word.

According to Dr. Maree Madden, some educators and professionals fear that teaching deaf children sign and spoken language at the same time will be confusing to the child. Dr. Madden suggests that deaf children benefit from exposure to both sign and spoken language immediately after the children are diagnosed with profound hearing loss and are not confused.

Sign language can help children academically

Gallaudet University Gaullaudet University has published a report called "Signing with Babies and Children: A Summary of Research Findings for Parents and Professionals" by Claire Vallotton, Ph.D. The report provides an in-depth study of the impact of sign language acquisition on deaf children's academic performance and social skills and shows that children benefit from being grounded in sign language.

A research brief by Gallaudet University called "Advantages of Early Visual Language" and the La Trobe study say that fluency in sign as a first language and a bilingual English-sign language approach supports the acquisition of spoken and written English.

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Sign language enhances social interaction

Another study by the American Society for Deaf Children reveals the findings of several studies that compare the socio-emotional and academic achievements of signing and non-signing children. The report states that signing children had better social skills and fewer tantrums.

Children with signing parents were less frustrated, and their parents reported more less parenting-related stress. Families were closer and had more communication.

The report quotes numerous studies that confirm that children who are taught in sign language acquired more vocabulary and higher reading and writing skills than non-signing deaf children.

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Comments 14 comments

Carola Finch profile image

Carola Finch 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Thank you for your input, Kirstin. All of the comments on this article have been approved and should appear there. This is a public forum so I agree that we need to respect and be open to different points of view.


Kirsten 3 years ago

I did read your comments Deidre and I just happen to disagree not from people who write about this, but from living the experience. I only know that my son is ahead of the class with reading in a mainstreamed environment with having ASL as his first language. And you are biased if you are using dogma ideas when you are talking about someone's culture or ideas that you disagree with. It's not a religion but a culture which is quite obvious to most people. My prior post is also not shown here. All the best to you and yours.


Carola Finch profile image

Carola Finch 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

I have updated this article with several new research papers that discuss this subect.


Carola Finch profile image

Carola Finch 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

I have been following and writing news in the deaf community for about 20 years now, but I am always open to opposing points of view. I have rewritten the article that hopefully addressed the issues you raised. I have eliminated a couple of things until I get a chance to review all the material and can back these things up.

Q. 1) "Sign language stimulates the areas of the brain associated with speech and language which in turn help deaf children to acquire speech skills. " - Where's that research? How does a non-verbal language help deaf children acquire verbal skills?

A. Research suggests that people with severe hearing loss have brains that aquire language visually since the auditory stimulus is missing. This info is buried in the two Gallaudet studies that I referenced in my article. I will add it when I find it.

Q. How does a non-verbal language, which has no means of showing a deaf person how words sound, help deaf people with spoken language acquisition?

A. Sign language gives deaf children a point of reference that helps then to relate the sign's concepts to English words. I didn't I said that sign teaches deaf people how words sound. When children know a sign, they can make the connection between the concept of the sign and the English word or mouth shapes or speech. Without a point of reference, it is much more difficult for deaf children to learn English.

Q. 3) I have met Dr. Harlan Lane himself (the person you quote). I make the effort to look at both sides and have been to both AG Bell/NAD events in my research for accessibility in local culture (museums, etc) because I feel that public places of tourism interest should be accessible for ALL types of deaf people (Sign/Cued Speech/Oral). Dr. Lane was incredibly rude to me and wouldn't speak to me at all after he found out that I was a deaf person that wears CIs and lipreads. I've found that others, who were like me, got a similar frosty reception from Dr. Lane, regardless of the situation.

A. Kudos to you for your research. I am all for accessibility too. I am sorry to hear you had a bad experience with Dr. Lane. Unfortunately, there are a lot of bad feelings out there and strong prejudices. I quoted his book because it is highly regarded in deaf academic circles and is recommended reading in some sign language education programs. By the way, I don't quote Dr. Ling because his work has been discounted by leading researchers. I once attended a lecture years ago that countered and tore apart a lot of his research.

Hope this answers your questions.


Carola Finch profile image

Carola Finch 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Would be interested in seeing the research.


hearinu 3 years ago

A small amount of signing early on does no damage to language acquisition and there are some children who can manage 2 languages with no detriment, however, sitting in a class of signing only for many hours per day, does, in fact, limit a child'a auditory brain development. The language centers are stimulated but through the visual pathways. Using a plumber's tools to do an electrician's job is not the most efficient way. Adding sign language to an IEP usually results in a child being limited to attending a special school for the deaf. Our nation's bilingual bicultural programs rarely meet the state standards at more than 10%. That is researchable. Some kids need schools for the Deaf- not many.


Carola Finch profile image

Carola Finch 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Sorry - should have replied here. I will answer all your questions in a separate reply and make the necessary adjustments to the article. I will ferret out the weasels (sorry - need some humor at this point) I do have research to backup everything I have said but it will take some time to get it all together.


Jane E. 3 years ago

All of Deirdre's Comments- Kristin, her answers to your post are the first three comments.

Deirdre 2 hours ago

Let me make it clear, my child benefited from all the work we did. She has just got her masters degree from a university in England , she got her BA from Boston University. She lives in multiple cultures. We are Irish immigrants so we shared our language with both our hearing and deaf daughters. She converses with her Italian cousins. She can also sign, why limit deaf kids. Reading can and should be the window on the world.

Deirdre 3 hours ago

My comment has gone again. I need to say I am not biased against any method. Parents need the truth. Reading levels are the unbiased measure .

Deirdre 3 hours ago

Kristin , where did you read in my posts that I was biased against anything ?? I want very much that people know the true research in deafness. The easiest question to ask any professional is What are the reading levels of the deaf kids in your program at graduation. They will beat around the bush keep at it. As I said I left no stone unturned for my daughter, they called her deafness profoundly profound, no hearing above 120db. For me I visited TC programs, oral schools residential schools that used sign, Auditory Verbal programs etc etc. they did everything they could to keep their reading levels from me. The best levels were at an oral school in St.Louis Missouri, however it was not equivalent to hearing kids. I wanted more for my child and her to be at home and not live in a military environment .

Deirdre 15 hours ago

I have found that people in deaf education do not want a dialogue. I suspect you are no different. My problem as a parent of a deaf child that every one tried to convince me to join their "religion" from Auditory Verbal and Total Communication to ASL. No one want to present the truth of the effect of their methods on deaf children. When you remove my comments I know you do not want a dialogue with a parent that has researched and escaped your dogma.

Deirdre 15 hours ago

Have the courage to leave negative comments on !!! I went to the world's expert on speech for Deaf Children, he happened to be from Canada. I went everywhere to help my deaf child, Dr Ling had all the research to show that any sign used with a deaf child was detrimental to development of speech.

Deirdre 16 hours ago

This is the most ridiculous so called paper. The key to academic success in children is quite easily measured by reading levels. The deaf who sign fall behind hearing children. People like you need to stop misleading parents of deaf children.

By A mother of a deaf child


Deem 3 years ago

Thank you Jane !!! I just want all parents to know really what is out there. I am not against any method I am for deaf kids being able to read. I am truly tired of the divisions and parents being given information on only one method. The scientific approach is not being used in deaf education.


Jane E. 3 years ago

I will upload all the comments Deirdre made unless you make valid reasons as why she is wrong, in a little bit (I feel that you should give Kirsten a chance to see Deirdre's answers to her). In the meantime can you give me the links to these following points?

1) "Sign language stimulates the areas of the brain associated with speech and language which in turn help deaf children to acquire speech skills. " - Where's that research? How does a non-verbal language help deaf children acquire verbal skills?

2) You have many points that are classified as "weasel words" in the research lexicon. "Some say" and "Research shows" are just a few examples- you don't back up those points with cited sources. I'd like to know where you get this research- a) "Some deaf adults say" - in what context is this in? The Deaf Culture or the general deaf population (in which over 90% do not use any form of sign language)? b) "Research shows that deaf children are more successful learners in a bilingual sign-English environment."- Where's the citation for that? What's the context for this sentence? Is it with deaf children in a deaf school that uses the bi-bi approach OR is it with deaf children who are mainstreamed? c) You say "some professionals say (with ASL), the child will be inhibited from learning vocal and written language." without saying who these professionals are, and I can easily find who they are, and they are right, as they have findings to back up their hypothesis. Finally, d) "Research reveals that the deaf children’s knowledge of sign supports the acquisition of spoken language and enables them can achieve classic language acquisition milestones." How does a non-verbal language, which has no means of showing a deaf person how words sound, help deaf people with spoken language acquisition? I'm really curious to know where that research comes from (and you have emphasized this point twice in the essay, without backing it up with any sources at all).

3) I have met Dr. Harlan Lane himself (the person you quote). I make the effort to look at both sides and have been to both AG Bell/NAD events in my research for accessibility in local culture (museums, etc) because I feel that public places of tourism interest should be accessible for ALL types of deaf people (Sign/Cued Speech/Oral). Dr. Lane was incredibly rude to me and wouldn't speak to me at all after he found out that I was a deaf person that wears CIs and lipreads. I've found that others, who were like me, got a similar frosty reception from Dr. Lane, regardless of the situation.

Looking forward to your answers.


Carola Finch profile image

Carola Finch 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Thanks for sharing. I am sorry your son is going through such a negative experience. You may have already looked into this, but if not, maybe your son would benefit from a summer camp or after school program with other deaf children. Your local deaf association or local agencies may be able to tell you what is available in your area. All the best.


Dione Lebeau 3 years ago

My son is nine years old now and mainstreamed he is above his hearing peers in most things. He has been reading since he was three he very advanced especailly when readingthe only lacking skill is when it concerns socially. i some of the deaf people around us would be part of his life. he needs good role models who sign naturally. who talk in healthy conversations to. He is rejected because people think he is too english. i think that's awful because he is smart enough to learn he is penalized by his real peers


Carola Finch profile image

Carola Finch 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

Thanks.


Amanda 3 years ago

Beautiful video! Good points made. Give your deaf child what he/she needs.

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