April 15, 2016
Meredith Sugar, President
Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing
To Ms. Sugar:
Your April 1, 2016 online statement, “Dispelling myths about deafness,” has already elicited a tidal wave of responses from across the United States and international Deaf communities, including various statements from researchers specializing in deafness and language development. Those responses have highlighted numerous inaccuracies in your portrayal of current research.
We, the Linguistics Department of Gallaudet University, support those responses and have added a few words of our own. We would like to call to your attention the following evidence-based considerations that refute the framework of your arguments. While we share your concern for deaf and hard-of-hearing people to reach their highest potential, we do not believe that your current prescriptive policies are likely to lead to that outcome.
ASL is a LANGUAGE, not a tool.
Myth: ASL is not a language, but a tool for spoken language development.
“Deaf children frequently communicate quite well with listening and spoken language alone, and the number of children who have a need for ASL has decreased dramatically.” –M. Sugar
Your statement shows a strikingly utilitarian view of ASL as little more than a tool for learning spoken English. ASL is a language, not a tool, and every language is an invaluable part of our collective linguistic patrimony (see Stokoe 1960, Hochgesang 2016). The vast majority of the world’s languages have never been the subject of scientific study and hold enormous potential for enriching our current understanding of how languages work, how they are acquired and lost, how they interact with each other, etc. This is why linguists race to document the hundreds of languages that are currently dying, including an alarming number of sign languages (Lewis et al. 2016). Every language is tied inextricably to a culture and a community, and its importance cannot be measured by the relative size of that community (Nettle & Romaine 2000). Reasoning that fewer deaf children have a need for ASL now that technology exists to help them “hear” English is tantamount saying that fewer hearing children have a need for Swahili or Croatian or Inuktitut, now that so many of them have unprecedented access to English via the internet.
Deaf children CAN be fully involved in both Deaf and hearing cultures
Myth: A deaf child cannot be part of both Deaf and hearing cultures.
“When today’s parents are told that their deaf children should or must learn ASL as part of a Deaf culture, they increasingly respond that their children actually are part of a hearing culture—that of their families, friends and the world at large.” –M. Sugar
Cultures are not mutually exclusive; a single person can belong to multiple cultures at the same time. Bilingual individuals typically maintain ties with two or more cultures simultaneously, which our society generally views as an advantage. There is no reason why the same perspective should not apply to signing deaf children from hearing families. Furthermore, many deaf children raised orally eventually gravitate towards the Deaf community, as we see here at Gallaudet, where new signers make up a steadily growing segment of our campus population. Learning ASL as an adult can be a long and difficult task, and finding your footing in Deaf culture is challenging after being told your whole life that you are not deaf. Hearing parents need to know that choosing ASL does not close the door to hearing culture for their child. Rather, it opens a door to Deaf culture, and most importantly, equips parents to accompany their child as they navigate a new cultural landscape together.
Early exposure to ASL does NOT hinder spoken language development
Myth: Early exposure to ASL will hinder development of spoken English
“Recent studies show that children who solely utilize listening and spoken language, rather than a combination of this with ASL, demonstrate better listening and spoken language skills than do children who follow a combination approach.” –M. Sugar
Although in your original statement you did not cite any studies to support your claim that early exposure to ASL will hinder development of spoken English, we assume you were referring to studies like Kirk et al. (2002), Tobey et al. (2004), and Holt and Svirsky (2008). However, these studies compare the English development of children raised with oral communication (OC) to those who use total communication (TC), not ASL. Total communication is the philosophy that a deaf child should use whatever mode of communications works best for them. In theory this could include ASL, but in practice it most commonly means some mixture of spoken language and signs, such as Signed Exact English (SEE) or Sign Supported Speech. The signed input a deaf child sees while watching these mixed systems lacks important linguistic features of a natural sign language, such as prosodic organization and meaningful use of space. It is therefore not surprising that children with cochlear implants who receive this type of impoverished signed input would develop weak language skills. In addition, comparing English development in children raised with OC versus TC in itself is highly suspect, because the nature of the signed TC input (quality and quantity of sign exposure, age of acquisition, etc.) that the children receive is not specified.
To properly evaluate the effect of ASL on early English development, the appropriate comparison to make is between children raised with oral communication only and children raised with spoken English plus a full, natural sign language. Studies making this comparison have been appearing at an increasing rate, focusing on deaf cochlear implant users raised by deaf, signing parents. This population is relatively small but internationally studied. Recent research from Belgium (Mouvet 2013), Brazil (Quadros, Cruz, & Pizzio 2012), Iran (Hassanzadeh 2012), Italy (Rinaldi & Caselli 2009, 2014), the Netherlands (Giezen 2011, Giezen, Baker, & Escudero 2014), and the United States (Davidson et al. 2014) all report successful spoken language development for deaf cochlear implant users who are raised with natural sign language input. All of these studies have come to the same conclusion: There is no evidence that early exposure to a full, natural sign language obstructs spoken language development. In fact, Marcel Giezen (2011) concludes in his dissertation by saying that the evidence points to bimodal bilingual training as the optimal choice for cochlear implanted children, giving them the best chances for language success.
The critical period is EQUALLY critical for signed languages
Myth: There is a critical period for spoken language development, but not sign language development.
“[T]he window for a deaf child to acquire listening and spoken language is much shorter than the window in which ASL can be acquired.” –M. Sugar
The idea that spoken language needs to be learned within a critical “window” of time, whereas sign languages can be learned at any age, is patently false and reflects an underlying assumption that sign languages are not real languages. Normal language acquisition requires access to language input as early as possible, and it does not matter whether the language is signed or spoken. We now know that language acquisition begins much earlier than previously suspected, even before birth in many cases (Moon, Lagercrantz, & Kuhl 2013). Research carried out by Mayberry and her colleagues (Mayberry et al. 2011) has demonstrated that there is a critical period for language; however, this “window” holds for any language, spoken or signed, and it means that no child can miss out on even a year of language input and not suffer negative effects on their linguistic and cognitive development. During the first year of life, even before infants begin babbling, their minds are busy analyzing their linguistic input and forming hypotheses about how their language is structured.
Thus, delaying access to language for even one year can have seriously detrimental effects on a child’s later linguistic development. This is true regardless of whether a language is spoken or signed. Studies comparing late-exposed signers (deaf adults raised orally, but who subsequently learned ASL) and native or early-exposed signers have repeatedly demonstrated that the age at which deaf signers start learning ASL correlates negatively with their proficiency in that language, even after decades of using ASL as their primary language (Mayberry & Fischer 1989, Newport 1990, Mayberry & Eichen 1991). Furthermore, late-exposed signers are less successful than native or early-exposed signers in learning English as a second language as they grow older (Mayberry & Lock 2003, Mayberry 2007). Humphries and his colleagues (2014) summarize the numerous studies that have revealed the negative developmental impacts that delayed language exposure can have, which include “trouble with verbal memory organization (Rönnberg 2003), mastery of numeracy and literacy (MacSweeney 1998), and higher-order cognitive processing such as executive function and theory of mind (Courtin 2000, 2010, Courtin & Melot 2005, Morgan & Kegl 2006, Schick et al. 2007, Courtin et al. 2008, Figueras et al. 2008, Marschark & Hauser 2008, Remmel & Peters 2009)” (See Humphries et al. 2014: e31–e52).
For all these reasons, you put deaf children at high risk for language delay when you advise parents to put off or delay using ASL while they explore oral-only approaches with assistive hearing technology. Given the growing evidence that early exposure to a natural sign language does not impede spoken language development, as summarized above, parents should be encouraged to expose their deaf children to a sign language as early as possible, even if they do intend to opt for cochlear implantation. That way, their children can benefit from exposure to an accessible language during the critical years of development before they begin accessing spoken language through their implants.
In closing, we call upon you to end your promotion that spoken language is the exposure that deaf and hard-of-hearing children need to develop “language.” What you have failed to recognize is that “language” is not restricted to speaking and listening. You cite signed language as an added “accommodation,” rather than the true language that it is. ASL should not be viewed as a compensatory back-up plan, but as a language that deaf and hard-of-hearing people have full access to.
It is important that discussion of language acquisition be grounded in the evidence found from language acquisition studies. Gallaudet University is a bilingual institution that utilizes ASL and written English. Our students thrive in this environment. Our students have sent an invitation to you, the president of A.G. Bell, to come and meet with them, and work together collaboratively to address the issues that impact Deaf and hard-of-hearing students. The Department of Linguistics thinks this type of dialogue would be very beneficial. We are looking forward to your acceptance of their invitation soon.
The Department of Linguistics