Language Development in Deaf Children

Learning to talk is crucial for child’s existence, acceptance and survival in the society. Children with hearing difficulties seem to be less able to get accustomed to life in modern society since they cannot hear what other people say, communicate their ideas, and respond to others by oral means. At this point, sign language becomes a milestone for communication and oral language acquisition. Since the ability to express one’s thought is significant for living with other people, parents and educators need to know how to develop both spoken and sign language in deaf children. They should also pay careful attention to opportunities that might help increase children’s progress in language acquisition.

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Many people around the world think that ability to speak is central in language and therefore serves as a primary means of communicating ideas to interlocutors. Even though this assumption is true for people that do not have hearing problems, the reality proves that expression is more important since many deaf or hearing-impaired people use sign language, a visual-gestural means of sharing information (Boggs, 2008). For example, in the United States, more than 2 million people use signs to communicate with others (Andrews, Logan, & Phelan, 2008). In addition, it is reported that American Sign Language (ASL) is a natural way of expression (Andrews, Logan, & Phelan, 2008).

Since deaf children do not hear sounds and therefore cannot imitate them, their language development requires more attention and efforts from both parents and educators. There are two approaches to language development of deaf children: teaching them to express ideas by means of sign language, and trying to develop both oral language and the ASL. Even though many parents see that their deaf children have many difficulties studying oral language, most educators adhere to this approach since it better adjusts these children to life in the society of hearing people.

Different gadgets can make acquisition of oral language by profoundly deaf children easier since they enable them to hear and imitate some sounds. Nicholas and Geers (2006, p. 286) state that the use of cochlear implants cannot improve hearing abilities of profoundly deaf children, but they significantly influence their acquisition of oral language. Miyamoto, Houston, Kirk, Perdew, and Svirsky (2003, p. 241) support this claim. Since hearing-impaired children easier acquire sign language than oral, their parents need to focus on the former. However, one should not neglect chances to improve oral language. Therefore, combined development of both means of expression increases their chance of living normal life in both societies: hearing and deaf.

American Sign Language, according to Andrews, Logan, and Phelan (2008), is based on 50 years of scientific research, and now many colleges, high schools, and universities teach it in order to endow deaf children with the possibility to acquire new knowledge, develop their talents, and achieve success in their future careers. Since the ASL is reported to be effective for increasing communicational abilities and, in some cases, even English literacy skills, it is often used for people with special needs, particularly for children with autism and cognitive difficulties (Andrews, Logan, & Phelan, 2008). For the same purpose – to enhance communication – many parents of toddlers without hearing problems adhere to ASL as an alternative means of communicating ideas to their children and understanding them.

American Sign Language is widely used to teach deaf children to communicate. ASL became as ordinary language for the deaf as oral English for the rest of Americans. Sign language development of deaf children does not differ much from the oral language development of healthy children. Many studies prove that deaf children develop language in the same manner as healthy people do, but with a different means and focus (Boggs, 2008). While infants without hearing problems learn to speak by imitating their caregivers’ speech and sounds they make, hearing-impaired children do the same with the signs – they imitate what they see. Dr. Laura Petitto, a psychologist, suggests that human brain is constructed in such a way that it has an innate capacity to acquire language step by step, combining different parts of the picture to form the whole and therefore conveying the meaning of something (as cited in Boggs, 2008). Moreover, the scientist adds that brain will switch from one stage to another irrespective of the means the language is perceived by – words, signs, intonation – in any possible way (as cited in Boggs, 2008). In addition to this, sign language has the same expressiveness and linguistic properties as oral language. Building their assumptions on this fact, many scientists claim that sign language preceded the spoken one in the evolutionary development of language (Andrews, Logan, & Phelan, 2008). For this reason, learning language by signs is not a limitation, setback, or problem, but an alternative.

Similar patterns in oral and sign languages result in a very similar manner of their acquisition. Most infants (without hearing loss or hearing difficulties) learn language from their parents or caregivers by watching and listening to them (Boggs, 2008). They hear how their mothers talk to other people and, most essential, to them – playing primitive “turn taking” games, imitating the babbling their infants do, and cooing to them. Later, the objects and actions are named and explained. At the next stage, reading books and telling fairytales is used to develop the child’s understanding and speaking skills (Boggs, 2008). In this case, visual techniques are an important part of cognition process as the mother not only names the object or action, but also imitates and explains it in the most understandable manner. Deaf mothers or mothers of deaf children use the same technique. Even though caregivers that do not have impaired hearing might use words or sentences, deaf children cannot perceive their spoken language. In situations like this, signs play a crucial role in cognition and understanding. In their face-to-face interaction, parents and their children establish a sign-language connection. As a hearing mother teaches her child to imitate some simple words, a deaf mother does the same with the help of signs, teaching a child to express needs, feelings, and desires in a visual manner. A caregiver molds child’s hands to create some shape or sign. He or she also adheres to exaggeration of facial expressions, making sure the child sees it and tries to repeat (Andrews, Logan, & Phelan, 2008). The same way as hearing parents try to make their children imitate sounds, deaf caregivers apply to visual means, encouraging children to repeat what they see. Every strategy based on visual techniques enhances communication between parents and children regardless of their hearing characteristics.

The later development of language by a deaf child is similar to the way a hearing one develops oral language. Approximately three months after birth, all children regardless of their hearing ability are aware of their environment, smile, play, and like to play. In a 3-6 months period, an ordinary child starts babbling. A hearing-impaired infant babbles in the same way as a hearing child does, with the only difference that the former does it with the hands (Andrews, Logan, & Phelan, 2008). Although this “finger-babbling” does not mean anything yet, it is more systematic than the moves of hearing children (Boggs, 2008). 

At the same age, around 6-12 months, a deaf child starts using manual jargon, and a hearing one says his/her first words. However, a hearing-impaired child starts ‘talking’ with his/her first signs around eight and a half months after birth, when a child who can hear usually starts using first words at 10 to 13 months (Andrews, Logan, & Phelan, 2008). In addition, Andrews, Logan, and Phelan (2008) state that all children know how to pull and point at that age. Therefore, one may conclude that deafness does not mean inborn inability to acquire speech. With the help of visual techniques, a deaf child can study sign language from early childhood and demonstrate the same cognitive abilities in infancy as a hearing one will. When a child is 1-4 years old, he or she develops basic phonological, syntactic, semantic, and morphological skills (Andrews, Logan, & Phelan, 2008). Thus, teaching deaf children to speak with the help of signs is important since it preserves the ability to learn as fast as children without hearing problems. 

Andrews, Logan, and Phelan (2008) insist that if caregivers engage deaf children in sign imitation, they will have the same level of sign language development as hearing children. However, Svirsky, Robbins, Kirk, Pisoni, and Miyamoto (2000, p. 153) state that 3-year-old deaf children fall behind normal-hearing toddlers in written, spoken, reading, and sign language development. Goldin‐Meadow and Mayberry (2001, p. 222), support the approach of Svirsky et al. (2000) regarding reading problems that hearing-impaired children have. The scientists state that since deaf children cannot interpret sounds, reading becomes a real difficulty for them (Goldin‐Meadow & Mayberry, 2001, p. 222). Andrews, Logan, and Phelan (2008) claim that in terms of signs, deaf children show more profound results since hearing infants and toddlers do not develop their hand language the same way as hearing-impaired children do. Still, different approaches to the situation may exist and the studies may show diverse results. 

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To conclude, deafness is not a verdict. Deaf children can be taught sign language and, in better cases, oral language as well. When hearing mothers teach their infants to imitate sounds they make, deaf caregivers use the same technique but with a slight difference – they place greater stress on signs. Showing an action or object and exaggerating facial expressions, they establish communication with a child and teach him/her to imitate their moves. Imitation develops the way a child communicates. The studies prove that the ASL is effective since deaf children taught ASL do not fall behind in cognitive and language development from their peers without hearing problems. Therefore, parents and educators should develop oral, sign language or both to make deaf children more adjusted to communication in the society.

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