Considerations for a Bilingual Approach in the Education of the Deaf Child: American Sign Language and Spoken English Should Not Be Considered as Mutually Exclusive Alternatives, but as Potentially Complementary Strategies for Encouraging Language Development in Deaf Children

By King, J. Freeman | The Exceptional Parent, October 2016 | Go to article overview

Considerations for a Bilingual Approach in the Education of the Deaf Child: American Sign Language and Spoken English Should Not Be Considered as Mutually Exclusive Alternatives, but as Potentially Complementary Strategies for Encouraging Language Development in Deaf Children


King, J. Freeman, The Exceptional Parent


It is phenomenal the way that young deaf children can acquire two languages (American Sign Language and English) simultaneously, if exposed to them in early life. However, there is the assumption, and resultantly the folk myth, that exposing a young deaf child to two languages may cause language delay and/or language confusion. There is not a body of irrefutable evidence to support this belief.

The research of Dr. Laura Ann Petitto, a neuroscientist widely known for her discoveries about the biological foundations of language, adds credence to other research findings that indicate that young deaf bilingual (American Sign Language and English) children are not harmed, delayed, or confused by early dual language exposure. These children not only achieve their language milestones in both ASL and English, they are also able to reach the same semantic and conceptual development as hearing monolinguals (one language users).

There are educators and parents who believe that education of the deaf child should be conducted in an English-only environment, thus not using the one language to which a deaf child can easily and naturally have full access, a visual language such as American Sign Language (ASL). The educators and parents are concerned that early ASL language exposure may place the deaf child in danger of never becoming competent in English on a par with monolingual hearing peers. There is the fear that exposing a deaf child to American Sign Language (ASL) will prohibit or inhibit normal development in English. For the deaf child, this is reflected in the fact that many deaf children receive their first formal schooling in English-only environments, well after the developmentally crucial toddler years for the acquisition of a natural visual language.

Researchers have examined the impact that acquiring two languages (ASL and English) simultaneously has on young deaf children in early life. There are two general hypotheses that have dominated the field: unitary and differentiated.

The "unitary" hypothesis states that deaf children exposed to two languages do not understand that they are acquiring two languages, and only begin to differentiate the two languages around the age of three or beyond. This hypothesis asserts that deaf children experience delayed language development until they are able to sort out the two languages early in life. This belief has predominated scientific literature and has often become educational policy.

The "differentiated" hypothesis on the other hand asserts that bilingual (ASL and English) deaf children can and do differentiate initially the two languages; in fact, current research has found that the differentiation between the two languages occurs from as early as the onset of first words. Findings in this hypothesis indicate that bilingual language exposure from 0 to age five is optimal for dual (ASL and English) language development and mastery.

Research indicates that rapid acquisition of language fundamentals is possible when three key factors occur: 1) Exposure to both ASL and English has to be extensive, systematic, and across multiple contexts. Basically what this means is that the exposure to ASL and English must occur consistently in the home environment, the school environment, and the social environment; 2) Bilingual (ASL and English) deaf children exhibit similar development in both languages comparable in content to hearing peers learning only the English language. They are able to reach the same language milestones; and 3) The use of two languages (ASL and English) does not damage or contaminate the home language (English or another spoken/written language) of the deaf child.

Research has also found that the age of first bilingual (ASL and English) language exposure has a strong impact on a young deaf bilingual's ability to achieve successful reading acquisition. Studies conducted by Yoshinaga-Itano and others suggest there is a prime period for optimal language development in the first years of life that can lead to reading exposure and mastery. …

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Considerations for a Bilingual Approach in the Education of the Deaf Child: American Sign Language and Spoken English Should Not Be Considered as Mutually Exclusive Alternatives, but as Potentially Complementary Strategies for Encouraging Language Development in Deaf Children
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