The Controversy About Deaf Children Learning Sign Language
Should Deaf Children Learn Sign Language?
As someone who has volunteered with deaf children and worked with people in the deaf community, I have observed that 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.
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.