Language and Literacy Acquisition through Parental Mediation in American Sign Language

Article excerpt

Culturally situated social interactions during everyday activities play a fundamental role in the development of language and cognition in young children (Bruner 1983, 1990; Ochs 1988; Ochs and Schieffelin 1979; Rogoff 1990, 1997, 2003; Vygotsky 1978). ] From the moment they are born, infants are exposed to people speaking around and to them. As they go about the business of everyday life, parents and caregivers, siblings and extended family intuitively engage the newborn in social interaction and expose the infant to the language the child will eventually acquire and use to make sense of the world (Papousek and Papousek 1987). Now consider this same scenario with one change - the newborn is deaf. The newborn sees the lights, movements, colors, and faces in the environment, but the words spoken go unheard. Whether or not the caregivers are aware that their newborn is deaf, the process of language acquisition and subsequent languagemediated cognitive development does not proceed as it would if the infant had full auditory access to the spoken language that its parents know and use every day. Even on the first day of life, this newborn deaf child is steps behind the infant who began hearing the language used in utero (Mehler, Jusczyk, Lambertz, Halsted, Bertoncini, and AmielTison 1988).

More than 90 percent of all deaf babies are born into this unusual linguistic environment (Mitchell and Karchmer 2004). Upon learning their baby is deaf, parents and caregivers often face emotional turmoil, grief, and sometimes denial. They are likely to be at a loss as to how to meet their baby's unique linguistic needs. Seeking guidance, they frequently find conflicting, confusing and even misleading information (see Meadow- Orlans, Mertens, and Sass-Lehrer [2003] and Mertens, Sass-Lehrer, and Scott-Olson [2000]). Decisions about speech and sign language are usually framed as options in "appropriate communication strategies" and learning to "communicate effectively" (ibid., 142) rather than as choices about what they must do to ensure their child's right to unimpeded and timely language acquisition and cognitive development (Grosjean 2001).

Many parents, because they are not fully aware of what is at stake and thus accept the long-standing but erroneous claim that acquiring a signed language will impede speech development, seek resources devoted to supporting spoken language learning. If they decide they want to use a signed language, they soon realize they are unprepared to fully meet their child's immediate linguistic and cognitive needs. Meanwhile, every day that goes by is another day these deaf children live without the opportunity to acquire language because they are not exposed to a natural language that is fully accessible to them through their eyes.

Historically, discussions about the language and literacy acquisition of deaf children have adopted the perspective that most deaf children are language delayed and have centered on a lapse in the development of spoken and written English. This perceived lag is often cited as the culprit for their subsequent lack of academic achievement, particularly in reading and Avriting English. A groAving perspective today is that language delay is not the cause of this achievement lag; rather, evidence suggests that it is the result of a more serious condition - language deprivation (e.g., Kuntze 1998; Nelson 1998). Indeed, when he first observed and theorized about deaf children in Russia, Vygotsky held that signed languages interfere Avith spoken language development. However, after ten years of research, he concluded that signed languages were necessary requisites for all aspects of the deaf child's development. Moreover, he came to realize that, for deaf children, spoken language was an inadequate tool for acquiring cultural experience and participating in social life and that efforts spent primarily in the pursuit of spoken language learning were not only misdirected but also were often carried out at the expense of cognitive and other critical areas of the deaf child's development (Vygotsky 1993 ; Zaitseva, Pursglove, and Gregory 1999). …