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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

To Teach Sign Language to Babies or Not

Published by bblovas1

I never cease to be amazed that often the same people who will say that it is a wonderful thing to teach hearing babies sign language are the same people who will discourage the use of sign language with deaf or hard of hearing babies.
Parents of deaf and hard of hearing children have told me horror stories of their experiences of being told to ignore their child’s gestures. The most heart wrenching illustration given to me was where a parent was instructed to actually turn away their gaze from their child signing the word, “milk”… to ignore the child’s prodding and pulling, to ignore the child’s pulling the parent to the fridge… to IGNORE the child until the child said the word ”milk.” I once spoke to a mother whose daughter was in an oral program for the deaf and hard of hearing. The mother was totally distraught and in tears because her deaf daughter was disciplined for signing the “I love you” sign that she had learned during the weekend while playing with one of her neighborhood hearing friends.

On the other hand, parents of hearing children will tell you that it is the “IN” thing to do: to teach your baby sign language. It is applauded by doctors and parents alike. Why is sign language good for one and not for the other?
First of all, as parents, it is not easy to accept the idea that our child might be “imperfect.” Whether we, as the parent, want to admit it or not; we live vicariously through our children. Any deficiency in our children is often believed (if perhaps only on a subconscious level) to be a direct reflection on us and our deficiencies as parents, or as human beings.

All of us also know very well what it feels like “wanting to fit in” or wanting to be “normal.” Keeping this in mind, let’s go back to my topic: why would we applaud teaching a hearing child sign language and discourage the deaf child from learning sign language? I would suggest that this rationale has more founding in relationship to our own fears than any scientific reasoning:

Science has proven that once a second language is introduced, language comprehension is expanded exponentially. Consequently, each additional language is learned with that much more ease. Spoken language, such as English, is a linear language. American Sign Language is a spacial language. Most don’t realize it, but sign language is a language; with all the markers of a true language. Teaching a baby sign language ignites neuro-pathways of language at an early age; thus, enhances the ability to attain language in general. That is why parents of hearing children are so hyped with the thought of teaching their babies sign language. They see the results!

Before a child can talk, they gesture. Gesturing is a natural transition into language. Babies not only can recognize and learn signed words easily, but also show the ability to group words together in sentence-like structures in order to make known their desires — before they are able to express their desires in spoken language. It is a fact that a child can hear instruction and understand it, before they can speak.

A deaf or hard of hearing baby has the same natural instinct to gesture. They have the same ability to sign as a hearing child would. Again, it is a natural transition. Yet, we take away their first language and expect them to speak — though they have not heard! We expect them to read our lips, when the most skilled adult lip readers, at best, catches less than 10% of what is spoken. You are probably asking is, “If they understand less than 10% of what is lip-read, how do they actually know what is being said?” The answer is, they use natural closure skills … which a baby or child has not yet fully developed. Closure and reasoning skills are developed via repetitive exposure and access to the stimulus of everyday experiences and communication norms. How dare we cut off the first language of a child, and expect that child to experience anything less than frustration and feelings of inadequacy?

We must focus on the need of the child, instead of our own need to fix the child to LOOK normal. The child’s need for fundamental language must be met. Anything less than that is neglect.

Focus on providing “total communication.” Give them language and you will open up the world to them. They can learn sign language, go to speech therapy and even study English composition, literature and other foreign languages… the sky is the limit!!!

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