Learn to Sign!

In response to:

The Mysterious World of the Deaf from the November 20, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

In “The Mysterious World of the Deaf” [NYR, November 20, 2014], Gavin Francis has provided a scientifically informed and empathic discussion of a critical decision facing parents of deaf children: whether or not to insert cochlear implants to provide the child’s brain with auditory information. In many cases, early implantation enables the child to eventually understand and produce spoken language. But as Francis notes, “15 to 20 percent of recipients gain little benefit.” In addition, for those who are benefited, a prolonged period of audiological training is generally necessary. Francis also underlines the importance of early exposure to language, but with regard to hearing parents he seems to limit the argument to spoken language.

As a psycholinguist, I would like to make a plea for providing all deaf children with early exposure to sign language—whether their parents are deaf or hearing, whether or not the child has a cochlear implant. For over fifty years I’ve studied early language acquisition in a number of languages, including the sign languages of several countries. Research clearly shows that children as young as twelve months, both deaf and hearing, can easily acquire a sign language, and that hearing parents can acquire a level of sign language needed for successful parent–child interaction. Indeed, “baby signs” are enthusiastically recommended to parents of hearing children.

In the case of the deaf child, initial exposure to sign language provides a critical foundation for cognitive and social development, as well as written language. During the extended period when the implanted child is working on speech perception and production—with varying success—it would be unconscionable to deprive the child of the normal communication opportunities provided by sign language. If an implanted toddler fails to acquire the spoken language, the child at least is fluent in the natural language of the deaf and has had normal early development (as well as a good chance for later success in acquiring literacy). If the child does acquire the spoken language, he or she still has the advantage of being a bilingual with access to both the hearing and deaf communities.

Dan I. Slobin
Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Linguistics
University of California, Berkeley

Gavin Francis replies:

Professor Slobin makes an important point that was not fully addressed in my review—that acquisition of sign language from babyhood is a deeply valuable gift that shouldn’t be denied deaf children, whether they have cochlear implants or not. Discussion of this debate was limited in my essay, because it was drawn from Lydia Denworth’s book I Can Hear You Whisper, in which Denworth admits the difficulties she had with learning sign language herself, and teaching it to her son. When her son was five she arranged for a sign-language tutor to visit her home to teach the whole family. The lessons didn’t go well: “It was striking just how difficult it was for the boys, who were five, seven, and ten, to pay visual attention, to adjust to the way of interacting that was required in order to sign. It didn’t help that our lessons were at seven o’clock at night and the boys were tired.” She says elsewhere that she regrets having left it so late, and given the lessons so little priority.

With regard to worries that bilingualism could confuse children, Denworth quotes Marc Marschark’s 2007 book Raising and Educating a Deaf Child: “There has never been any real evidence that learning to sign interferes with deaf children’s learning to speak.” The American Society for Deaf Children agrees—denying deaf children exposure to sign language leaves them vulnerable in terms of both communication skills and cognitive development. As a father of bilingual children I was delighted when Denworth quoted psychologist Ellen Bialystok: “What bilingualism does is make the brain different…. Most of [the] differences turn out to be advantages.” Bialystok has also published evidence that bilingualism retards the onset of dementia and improves problem-solving and attention. Teaching children sign language would appear to be a win-win situation, gifting resilience and cognitive ability, as well as entry to the rich and uniquely visual culture of the deaf.