Bilingualism and Children with Hearing Loss

By Lakins, Leah L. | Volta Voices, September/October 2005 | Go to article overview

Bilingualism and Children with Hearing Loss


Lakins, Leah L., Volta Voices


Two generations ago, bilingual American families often committed to teaching their children English as a first language to help them develop the language skills they would need to succeed in school.

Families who made this commitment often sacrificed or postponed their children's acquisition of the cultural or family language. Since that time, research has shown that bilingual children have higher metalinguistic awareness, better communicative sensitivity, and a greater level of divergent thinking and creativity. (Baker, 2001). Now, modern American culture embraces families who choose to teach their children another language in addition to English.

Bilingual American families of children who are deaf or hard of hearing are no different, wanting their sons and daughters learn both English and their cultural language just as children with typical hearing would. For children with hearing loss, learning a second language can also offer a positive and rewarding opportunity to practice language and listening skills while learning to appreciate cultural diversity.

Parents who want their children to be bilingual need to create firm boundaries as they implement language in their children's lives. For example, professionals suggest that children under the age of three should acquire their natural home language before implementing a second language (Baker, 2001). Once the child enters school, parents should establish routines for using one language at home and another language for school. By establishing these routines, children will have a greater ability to code switch during communication with family and in educational settings. (Harding & Riley, 1986).

What influences parents to encourage their children to learn two languages? Four families share the lessons they are learning as they teach their children with hearing loss two languages.

Tonnie and Charity Okhiria wanted to teach their son, TeeJay, who attends Sunshine Cottage in San Antonio, Texas, to learn English as well as their native Nigerian. "We wanted our son to communicate with his friends and older people who speak English. We did not want him to feel cheated." The Okhirias speak their native language at home, but they closely monitor their conversations as they want him to develop his English skills as well.

Maria and Hugo Romo simply wanted to communicate more effectively with their daughter, Samantha. "We are from Mexico and our first language is Spanish. At first, we felt bad that we couldn't express our feelings with her because her first language is English. That was the primary reason we wanted her to be bilingual."

For Andrea and Jorg-Michia Jahn, they wanted to keep their daughter, Ann-Carolin, connected to her German relatives. "We are glad that Ann-Carolin can communicate with the rest of her family in Germany, some of whom do not speak English. She would not be a part of our extended family were she to only speak English."

Christian Werne, a student from New York working with Ellen Rhoades, Cert. AVT, is also learning German and English. Said his mother Sabine, "For us, bilingualism has become a lifestyle just like the Auditory-Verbal approach. We planned on having bilingual kids even before Christian was born and we just did not want to be stopped by his hearing loss."

Outside the home, the classroom is a critical environment for mastering a second language as well as its corresponding social codes. Children from non-English speaking homes may need to adjust their communication styles and be aware of non-verbal cues such as physical distance from the speaker and appropriate eye contact (Price, 2003).

The Romos are pleased that Samantha is adjusting well to the classroom. …

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