Updated: Jun 15, 2022
I would like to raise awareness about the importance of a strong first language foundation for every Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH) children born to hearing parents. So, if you are a hearing parent of a DHH child, please, take a few minutes to read the information below – it may just change your life and the life of your child/ren.
We all agree that any language is necessary for proper brain development, but when you prioritise speech production and listening skills and force to a DHH child to learn a spoken language in place of his/her natural language (sign language) during his/her critical language-learning years, it is called "language deprivation".
With this, I'm not saying that all DHH children from hearing parents must be provided with just sign language, but with both languages and allow them to choose which one works best for them, if not both.
We put lots of effort into talking to our children, singing them lots of songs, telling stories, reading books, and we do all this because it is well known that it is good for their brain development. It has lots of benefits such as developing language, social, and communication skills etc…, as well as forging a strong bond with your child/ren. If this is the case, then surely it must follow that we should also encourage them in their first/natural language and encourage all the benefits to a DHH child in tandem with other language skills?
Did you know that the brain forms 700 new neural connections every second from age 0 to 5? Also, the brain has no preference for language input, as long as it has a strong language foundation?
Using sign language as the first language DOES NOT NEGATIVELY IMPACT a Deaf child's language development. Actually, it does the opposite; it increases a child's verbal skills and contributes to a fully developed brain.
There are over 50,000 deaf children living in the UK. 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents who sadly have little or no experience of deafness or knowledge of how to communicate with a deaf person:
Some families choose to learn sign language to communicate with their Deaf children.
Some others prefer to use oral communication, often using cochlear implants or hearing aids, together with speech training. Sadly, even with the benefits of modern technology and speech and language therapy, no spoken language is 100% accessible to a Deaf person, even with auditory support devices.
Under certain conditions, neither spoken language nor sign language is accessible to deaf children resulting in early language deprivation (Front. Hum. Neurosci, 2019).
CONSEQUENCES OF LANGUAGE DEPRIVATION
Studies has shown that the consequences of language deprivation in DHH can last a lifetime, with irreversible effects to their brains like:
Cognitive delays (literacy, planning, problem solving, attention, memory organisation, number manipulation...)
Negative impact on social, emotional, and educational development
Mental health difficulties
If DHH children don't acquire a first/natural language in the early years, they might never be completely fluent in any language.
Also, speech training can be a very long and difficult process, and, unfortunately it seems to be the case that this is often mostly for the benefit of hearing people, not the Deaf children.
WATCH SOME PERSONAL EXPERIENCES OF PEOPLE BEING DEPRIVED OF LANGUAGE:
THE BENEFITS OF SIGN LANGUAGE ON A HEARING BABY - FROM MY OWN EXPERIENCE
Not only DHH children benefit from sign language in early years, but hearing children too.
As many of you already know, I'm a CODA; I'm a hearing person and both my parents are profoundly Deaf. Spanish Sign Language (LSE) is my first language (mother tongue), spoken Spanish is my second language, and English as my third language.
When I had my baby I was committed to teaching her sign language from the very beginning.
The reasons were very clear to me; I love sign language, my baby would be able to communicate with her grandparents, to support deaf culture, and because of the great benefits she'd get, such as:
Improve their natural communication skills
Earlier reading and a strong vocabulary
Improve the child-parent connection/bond
Enable children to communicate effectively and lowering frustration levels by giving them a means to express themselves before they know how to talk
Bilingualism is a great booster for the brain
Enhance the cognitive processes helping to enhance creative thinking and enrich their problem-solver skills
Develop an increased sense of wellbeing and confidence.
I can certainly say that teaching sign language to my hearing baby definitely developed her social, intellectual, emotional, and physical skills.
Most hearing children start to speak even before they step into school, but, read this: children exposed to sign languages can communicate even before they have the ability to speak!
At just 1 year old my baby was able to communicate with us using simple words, avoiding frustration and temper tantrums, which improved her self-confidence too (Read here my personal story after teaching sign language to my baby).
HOW TO ERADICATE LANGUAGE DEPRIVATION
DHH children must have access to their natural language during their critical period of language acquisition and in order to assist this, hearing parents of Deaf children are strongly encourage to embrace and learn sign language.
Remember this: Sign language doesn't cause language delays. Language deprivation does.
We highly recommend you to access to the National Deaf Children's Society' website. They offer information and resources, and 1-2-1 tailored support for families with Deaf children.
By joining them (free) you will be able to access to lots of videos and tips to introduce you to BSL. They also have online Family Sign Language courses where you can learn different topis from experienced tutors.
Introductory or Family Sign Language courses tend to be free, you will learn basic level of BSL, though. If you're a parent who finds it too expensive to learn BSL in your area or cannot access courses locally, there are different types of support local authorities may offer. You can contact the their free Helpline for more information and support.
In conclusion, please do considering offering your DHH child/ren an early and robust access to a signed language. All the evidence suggests that signed languages are the only languages that are 100% accessible to a DHH child.