A Profound Enigma: Teaching Sign Language to Hearing Children and Speech to Deaf Children

By King, J. Freeman | The Exceptional Parent, July 2017 | Go to article overview

A Profound Enigma: Teaching Sign Language to Hearing Children and Speech to Deaf Children


King, J. Freeman, The Exceptional Parent


Is it not logical and linguistically savvy to play to the child's strength and not his/her weakness?

Throughout the years, many different language learning theories have emerged. The latest phenomena in the United States is the teaching of sign language to hearing toddlers and preschoolers. Conversely, there is a push to to teach speech to infants, toddlers, and preschoolers who are deaf. Herein lies the enigma: eliciting the use of vision and sign language to promote language development in the hearing child, yet prohibiting the deaf child from using a visual language. In essence, the deaf child is being penalized for their weakness (hearing), instead of promoting their strength (vision).

Linguistic competency is necessary for human interactions. Language is necessary for the flow of information between children; between children and their parents; and between children and their teachers. Language is used to develop and enhance cognitive skills, to develop literacy, and to develop social and emotional skills. It is the pathway to intellectual growth, and essential for involvement in the entirety of the educational experience. Hence, the idea that sign language can be another avenue to assist the hearing child in learning and utilizing language.

Sign language is a tool that can be used to promote speech and English language competency in hearing children, even though speech is the primary method through which the English language is produced. Is it not putting the cart before the horse when speech, which cannot be heard or impartially heard, also becomes the primary tool for the deaf child through which language is accessed and produced?

If, in fact, as research has demonstrated, the use of sign language does promote speech development and provides a bridge to English language development in children who can hear, would it not be logical to assume that the use of sign language in deaf children would also be a viable bridge to the English language in children who are deaf? Even though American education champions bilingualism in hearing children why, in the same breath, does it deny such a possibility to deaf children? Is it not logical and linguistically savvy to play to the child's strength and not his/her weakness?

Research has shown that sign language (for both hearing and deaf infants, toddlers, and preschoolers) provides the earliest possible mode through which children can learn expressive language skills and open the door to shared meanings. The reason for this is that children begin to learn language long before they are physically capable of producing speech. While speech capabilities are still maturing, children struggle to find ways of expressing wants, desires, and intentions. Given exposure to a visual language of signs, children are able to master language at an earlier stage. Signing children can communicate, while their peers are frustrated when others cannot comprehend their communication attempts.

Common sense, as well as research, has illuminated much related to language acquisition and language learning:

Early language learning experiences affect other areas of development that are critical to children's future success. Lack of language access can negatively impact cognitive, psychological, and social development. Poor language skills are often linked to behavioral problems, academic difficulties, lowered self-esteem, and social immaturity. Behavioral problems are often the end result of children's frustration at not being able to communicate with their parents or significant others. Yet, research shows that children with strong language skills, regardless of the language, consistently outperform their peers on tests of intelligence and other measures of success. The language might be

English or French or another spoken language, or it can be sign language; the key is language accessibility of a deep and meaningful nature. The earlier a child acquires his/her first language, the greater the success will be in acquiring subsequent language skills and meeting other important developmental milestones. …

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