The brain-boosting benefits of bilingualism have been in the news quite a lot of late, and for good reason. The collective results of neurological and psychological studies show that bilingual thinking has a profound effect on the brain’s executive function, and bilingualism produces positive results in areas ranging from greater cognitive flexibility and faster response times to staving off dementia. With the backing of such staunch scientific proof, it seems only reasonable that educators, medical professionals and parents would advocate for bilingual education for children, and often they do; integrating foreign language learning into early education is an oft-cited goal for curriculum developers. But for deaf children, bilingualism as an educational option is ignored and in many cases even actively discouraged. The result is a child at risk of not mastering any languages, and therefore failing to reach his or her linguistic and cognitive potential.
It’s been proven since the 1960s that American Sign Language (ASL) has all the characteristics of a full and natural language, with a syntax and vocabulary independent of English, so the benefits of ASL-English bilingualism are the same as bilingualism between any two spoken languages. (I’m referring here to ASL and English, but the same holds true for signed and spoken language bilingualism in countries around the world.) So why would parents or educators try to stunt a child’s growth?
It isn’t a case of ill-intent, but rather simple misinformation. The media characterizes cochlear implants as miracle cures for deafness, and in the face of such impressive-sounding technology those who advocate for sign language education seem out-of-date or bitter about the potential loss of Deaf culture. In reality, though cochlear implants have provided hundreds of thousands of deaf people with unprecedented access to sound, as yet they cannot restore normal hearing. Success rates as to whether the user will be able to hear or understand sound and speech vary greatly, so deaf children accessing language solely through imperfect technology get fewer chances to acquire language than their hearing peers, and fall behind because of it.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not anti-technology, nor am I advocating for deaf separatism. Learning written and spoken English should be a top priority in deaf education; it’s essential for a successful integration into mainstream society. However, promoting speech shouldn’t mean sacrificing linguistic understanding, and it doesn’t have to. If given the chance, deaf children can acquire language through the natural process of incidental learning via signed language, because the visual modality allows for one-hundred percent access to linguistic information at all times. Having a strong linguistic foundation with which to think about language then allows a child to go on and learn a second language without frustration or the threat of developmental delay. But because of the stigma surrounding signing, children are often denied access to language in favor of promoting access to speech.
The arguments against ASL are many; the use of ASL prevents a child from learning to speak; learning ASL is hard; the distinct syntax and structure of ASL lowers deaf children’s reading levels. But the suggestion that ASL prevents a child from speaking is irrational, and illustrates a double standard in the education of deaf versus hearing children. Parents of a hearing child would never be instructed to stop speaking Spanish, French, Azerbaijani, etc, with their child in the worry that the child would not be able to learn English. In fact, teaching basic signs to hearing babies is trendy of late. It’s thought to decrease frustration, facilitate early communication and actually encourage speech. The idea that knowing two languages could hurt one’s reading ability is also tenuous. While some statistics show lower reading levels for deaf children, this data also includes children educated with oral methods, and research shows that children who have exposure both ASL and spoken English read better than those who know just one or the other. And the suggestion that verbal communication is easier for families should be met with question easier for whom?
With bilingualism, deaf children will not only catch up to their hearing peers, but also have access to the advantages of linguistic and cultural diversity experienced by bilingual thinkers everywhere. That is, if we let them.
Sara Blazic is an instructor of undergraduate writing at Columbia University, freelance literary translator, and the founder of Redeafined (www.redeafined.com). You can also find her on Twitter @redeafined.