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Sign Language Bilingualism

Paper adapted from Kyle(ed), Growing Up in Sign and Word, 1994)

There has been a great deal of discussion about deaf education in the UK in recent years. For educators, the goals are - to provide the child with the concepts and knowledge of the society; in ideological terms - to realise the potential of the child. For deaf people, with the direct experience of failure, the issue is about recognition, acceptance and about language.

One solution for the difficulties has been to alter the method. What deaf people claim is that despite a shift in methodology the same attitude remains - one of ensuring that the deaf child is made as similar as possible to hearing children. Total Communication arose as one of these solutions. Results of programmes using TC do not indicate the predicted improvements. But signing teachers have begun to discover sign language. The have begun to recognise the two languages which deaf people have often requested. But what is this bilingualism?

Bilingualism is just the use and knowledge of two languages by the same person. The paths towards achieving bilingualism are very numerous and the balance between the two languages varies enormously. It will still be termed bilingualism. For deaf children and their families these comments are very important. Unlike bilingual families where they use spoken languages, parents of deaf children will often be monolingual. The parents may often have to learn sign language at the same time as their child is acquiring the language. For these hearing families bilingualism is the use and knowledge of sign language and a spoken language.

What is important is that the child can develop comfortably and can interact freely in a language in which he or she will eventually be competent. This aspect has to precede all the rest. The bilingualism of the child progresses from the competence in interaction and will eventually achieve performance in both languages. For deaf children, this will be signed, written and spoken to the level appropriate for the intelligence and hearing.

Exploring the concept of Bilingualism:

A useful term is functional bilingualism. This can be minimalist where the domain of use is very small and limited eg airline pilot English. This might not be considered bilingual. However, the maximalist view is more in line with what we hope for in interpreters(and possibly also for teachers?):

"In this case the speaker is able to conduct all of his activities in a given dual linguistic environment satisfactorily. Note that there is no reference to norms in this explanation, since such a speaker may well use patterns that are completely alien to the monoglot reference group and show heavy signs of interference in phonology, morphology, lexis and syntax. However, to the extent that these do not impede communication between speaker and listener they do not get in the way of functional bilingualism. It may well be true that the majority of adult bilinguals who have learned their second language later in life fall into this category." p. 16-17

The aim is that those people who are involved with the child can communicate effectively in the domains of education and in the areas in which the child must express himslef of herlsef. Another term which may have applicability in the case of deaf people is additive and subtractive bilingualism. The former occurs when the acquisition of the second language leads to an extension of cognitive and social skills - the second language is prized. The latter occurs most often when the first language is denigrated most commonly in school. In the past most bilingualism for deaf children has been subtractivce: deaf children can use sign but only in order to achieve spoken language skill and then they are supposed to drop the sign.

Some Methods - Immersion:

One of the most famous approaches to bilingualsim has been the immersion approach taken in Canada where children from the majority English speakers are sent to a French-speaking school. In these programmes, all the lessons are taught in French, as if the children were monolingual French children. Programmes vary in their adherence to the strictness of the approach, with some being more bilingual, in that some teachers speak English. some adopt a principle of territories - in this zone of the school all communication should be in English or in French. In some cases the school administrators may be English users while the teachers all use French. The impression may be given that all the teachers are monolingual French speakers.

The results of achievement in these programmes is very favourable to language development. In Immersion programmes especially where the immersion begins very early, the children are as good in English as their English controls. Only in the very first stages is there a difference. In late immersion programmes there is no setback in English as was sometimes supposed.

When immersion programs were first introduced into the public school system, there was considerable concern among parents and educators alike that students would have difficulty assimilating academic material if it were taught through a second language. These concerns were fuelled ... by the results of earlier research on the academic and linguistic development of bilingual children ... For the most part, this research has reported that bilingual children experience linguistic and academic deficits when compared with monolinguals. As Cummins(1981) has pointed out, however, many of these studies were carried out in "subtractive bilingual" settings; that is in settings, which required the individuals learn a second language because the language of the school was different from the language of the home. Genessee, 1987, p. 40

Immersion students were also more sensitive to listener variables and were as good in academic subjects such as Maths. Compared to French controls they were as good in comprehension but less good in production. They also found that immersion centres were better than dual track schools. These immersion settings were unlikely to alter ethnic identity - ie the children did not become French oriented at the expense of English culture. Immersion seems to be good for language.

Cognitive Theory:

However, children from certain backgrounds seem to have difficulty in immersion programmes. The situation in Canada is considerably different from most. The children are middle class, come from homes where the majority language is spoken and are immersed in what is a minority language in their own country but a prestigious language worldwide. This cannot be compared with the situation of minority language children who typically fail in education.

Cummins(1981) offers a theory which helps to explain this. He suggests that there are two dimensions of language skill.: cognitively demanding/ undemanding and context dependent/independent.

Language skills typically develop in context dependent situations at home. Here the language environment is enriched by shared experience. Social interchange is also usually undemanding. However, school is often context reduced because of the need to pass on information and the tasks which the children have to complete may be cognitively demanding - such as writing an essay. The difficulty for a bilingual child is that their language proficiency is often in the undemanding context embedded situations. What may be problematic is that the bilingual child may actually show skills in the cognitively demanding context embedded situation - eg discussing their own culture, he/she may have problems when it comes to the academic area. This is also linked to sociocultural features as children from minority groups typically have poor levels of esteem for their language and culture. Bilingual proficiency is more likely where the languages are equally valued.

Models of Bilinguality

The simplest point and the one which is most telling, is the argument that hearing people do not learn sign very well. In a programme which was announced to be bilingual from such and such a date, the policy makers will encounter the same difficulties of their staff. Parents told the same thing, may also see it as an additional burden. So how bilingual can you become in a few weeks of evening study? Without proper support and clear motivation, and without contact with native users of that language, it is obvious that one cannot get very far. To use that language with people(children) who may know it better than you do is going to be a further problem. The issue of classroom control will be felt, but it might appear in other guises, such as how to match the teacher's signing to the varying(and often, low) levels of the children. How can the teacher cope with speaking children mixed with signing children? Many reasons for not implementing a bilingual programme may arise from the difficulties of the learning situation and the context in which it is to be used in school. It involves a great deal of risk on the part of the teacher. This is a major problem.

Pressure for Bilingualism:

The arguments for a bilingual approach now seem quite compelling. The paper from Johnson et al(1989 - Unlocking the Curriculum) is quite categorical in the statement of the failure of not only oral/aural approaches but of TC approaches as well. They propose ASL as the first language and the language of instruction of the deaf child. They want deaf children to be a language minority but there are a number of difficulties in the view and in how it would help the deaf child. It is not clear that being a minority group actually helps your position. All of the research supports the view that immersion in a minority language works for a majority child, but immersion in the majority language for a minority child leads to academic disaster. Education in this form is inherently limiting for the deaf child.

"The picture is different for the minority child. Whereas there are many indications that the minority child benefits from being introduced to literacy in his mother tongue, this is too often ignored, either because the covert goal is assimilation of the minority child into the mainstream culture; or because the means are unattainable or economically too costly (as for example, when the language is not written, or when there are no teaching materials or trained teachers available); or because those who plan education are still ignorant of research results, believe in the myth of bilingual handicap and are convinced that the earlier the child is introduced to a prestigious L2 the better he will develop academically. Bilingual education programs and mother tongue teaching in the early school years have been shown to benefit minority children and improve their academic achievement." Hamers and Blanc, 1989, p 213.

Models of Bilingualism:

There are a number of possibilities for bilingual programmes. The first is relatively simple and is happening to some extent in schools today(see figure 1 in the appendix). The school model has spoken and written language as the means of main instruction but sign language is used in a support system. This might correspond to a location view - sign language is used in the Unit and English in the mainstream. In this situation all the high status communication is carried out in English and the low status interaction is in sign. It is hardly likely to produce a functional bilingualism.

In the Person model(Figure 2), sign language is associated with certain people, usually deaf, and English is associated with others, usually hearing. Unfortunately, there are likely to be status differences - the hearing people are the real teachers and the deaf people are the assistants. Again this is hardly likely to raise the status and promote an equivalent view of the languages.

In the Integrated model (Figure 3) which might be combined with the above, the deaf child receives the English based information in sign but through an interpreter. Here the issue is access and the debate becomes one of whether the deaf child can cope with an English based curriculum. We are presenting the English use as the norm and the deaf child as having to cope with information second hand.

The dangers in this approach are that the interpreters almost by definition, come from the majority culture and the likelihood is that they are not trained in the use of the educational concepts which would have to be used in sign language.

A realistic model is the learning model(figure 4). This model places learning as the main target and says that when the child is in the early stages of learning, we should evaluate the most appropriate balance of spoken and written language and sign for the family. The child should have access to the easiest language to learn at the earliest time and this should be the means of interaction and communication. Interaction and the learning of "world" knowledge takes priority over all else. Language(s) are acquired along the way or are learned later. This means that the written form is approached at a later stage for the child even though cultural information is available from the beginning - in the home and at school.

To achieve such a system there has to be involvement of deaf people at the early stages and in the home. The concept of deaf mentors, deaf consultants, deaf grandparents would be introduced but one must be careful to avoid a sense of the family's ownership being supplanted by deaf community membership. However, what this model does is to ensure that the child arrives at school at least with a high level of competence in sign language and therefore, a vehicle for learning and interaction.

The Bilingual Programme

Although we have a much higher profile for sign language now than at any other time, it is still not prevalent in education settings and parents may still be denied access. Myths about the bilingual handicap still abound and the notion of sign supplanting the child's progress towards speech have to be countered. There remains a fear that if the child does not speak early and exclusively, then the processes of speech will never develop. Without speech the deaf young person will be dehumanised. There are therefore three aspects to deal with: the idea that using sign will mean that the child will lose or never develop speech, that speech if not created at the earliest point will never develop and that without speech the deaf person is less than human.

The last point is a very old one and can be linked to ideas of the 17th and 18th centuries. As we can demonstrate more and more competent deaf people who use sign, we can rebut this point.

The first point can only be evaluated as more parents try to introduce sign to their child at an early age. So far all the indications in personal reports are that use of sign early on improves speech. Hard data is not yet available. The second point is difficult to dispute. If a language is not learned early it will not be learned well - the same applies to sign. All we can indicate is that programmes of early intervention exclusively in speech with deaf children do not inevitably produce speech competence. The findings over the last 15 years show that speech production after 12 years of oral education may be very poor indeed. The priority must be to introduce at the earliest point, the language which the child can most easily learn and then introduce the difficult languages later.

The issue of change in attitude to the language is as much a matter for deaf people as for hearing people. If deaf parents give an ambiguous message in relation to sign and do not show confidence in sign, then it is unlikely that hearing parents will feel comfortable about early sign. However, the problem for deaf people is the legacy of pressure on their language, the expectation of failure associated with sign use. Changing this will take time and an enormous effort on the part of the deaf community. In the meantime, there are difficulties for the advocates of sign bilingualism. The third major priority is to raise the status of sign language.

These are almost pre-requisites for the development of an effective bilingual programme. They are not essential to begin the programme but without them the programme will be subject to many problems and it will not function at its most useful level.


Cummins J (1981) The role of primary language development in promoting educational success for language minority children, in California State Department of Education, Schooling and Language Minority Children - a theoretical framework, Los Angeles: Evaluation, Assessment and Discrimination Center

Fishman JA (1989) Language and Ethnicity in Minority Sociolinguistic Perspective, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters

Fishman JA and Lovas J (1970) Bilingual Education in sociolinguistic perspective, TESOL Quarterly, 4, 215-22

Genessee F (1987) Learning Through Two Languages, Cambridge, MA: Newbury House

Hamers JF and Blanc MHA (1989) Bilinguality and Bilingualism, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press

Johnson RE, Liddell SK and Erting C (1989) Unlocking the Curriculum, Washington, DC: Gallaudet Research Institute

Mackey (1970) A typology of bilingual education, Foreign Language Annals, 3, 596-608

Pohl J (1965) Bilingualismes, Revue Romaine de Linguistique, 10, 343-349

Romaine S (1989) Bilingualism, Oxford: Basil Blackwell

nn eport (1985) Education for All, London: HMSO

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