Removing (mental) barriers: sign language does not hinder spoken language learning, but quite the opposite
On April 18, Mr. José Luis Aedo, the president of the Spanish Confederation of Families of Deaf People (FIAPAS), made a statement during a briefing in Servimedia that we, at the Laboratory of Catalan Sign Language (UPF, Barcelona), think must be refuted due to the severity of its content.
We express our strongest rejection to Mr. Aedo’s statements related to sign bilingual education. FIAPAS’s president warned about ‘the actual risk that students with hearing impairments may finish their studies being illiterate "due to the abandonment of spoken language", since "many autonomous communities" talk about sign bilingual education for deaf students, "but they only work in sign language”’ (as reported by FIAPAS).
Research conducted so far clearly refutes this claim and in this short note we would like to argue it:
● There is no evidence that spoken languages are put aside in sign bilingual education. On the contrary, in Spain, although sign bilingual education has existed for about 20 years, there is still no approved curriculum in any of the sign languages of the state. This situation is unthinkable for the rest of languages of instruction in the Spanish education system. In this context, Esperanza Morales-López, as a result of her research on the sign bilingual education in Spain published in 2008, concluded that it is still pre-bilingual. Furthermore, a recent study has shown that sign language is not the language primarily used in some of the sign bilingual education settings, and that it is still necessary that the use of this language is promoted in many contexts of teaching and learning (Sánchez Amat, 2015).
● Several studies have shown that there is a positive relationship between sign language skills and written skills. Since the first study in this field by Strong and Prinz in 1997, other researchers have found results in the same line (Chamberlain & Mayberry, 2000 and 2008, Hoffmeister, 2000; Mann, 2007; Dubuisson, Parisot & Vercaingne-Ménard, 2008 ; Hermans, Knoors, Ormel & Verhoeven, 2008). According to these works, the higher the sign language skills, the better the written skills. Also, positive relationships have been found between sign language and spoken language skills (Niederberger, 2008; Hermans, Ormel and Knoors, 2010). The results support the hypothesis that there is a positive transfer between languages that is beneficial for the language development of deaf children. Therefore, bilingualism promotes the development of the languages involved, contrary to the vision of Mr. Aedo according to which one of the languages, the spoken one, is abandoned as a result of using sign language.
Mr. Aedo also ‘stressed that the need to learn sign language cannot be at the expense of the oral, since there are students “who have to leave school because in class they have an interpreter, but at home they do not have this help”’ (as reported by EuropaPress). Regarding this statement, we want to point out that:
● Mr. Aedo highlihgts a problem that has been reported by the associations of parents of deaf children and the deaf associations: parents receive little support to learn sign language, causing that in some families the deaf child knows sign language but not his family. Although this situation is not necessarily problematic when the deaf child’s spoken language skills are satisfactory to communicate with his or her family, it is not so in the case of deaf children who do not have the expected spoken language development. In this situation, the fact that the family knows sign language will be crucial to ensure family communication.
● Sign language is the only language fully accessible to the deaf children from his first day of life and therefore it is the only one that guarantees the full language development in the early years. These are critical for this development to happen, while spoken language acquisition is conditioned by a number of factors that are not fully controllable. Providing deaf children with a sign language from the time of diagnosis, in addition to prosthetic intervention and speech therapy to promote the development of spoken language, ensures complete linguistic and cognitive development. In this case, if spoken language acquisition is not successfull, sign language guarantees full language development.
● The linguistic results of an exclusively oral intervention strategy with deaf children are unpredictable. It is not possible to state that the speech therapy with deaf children will ensure full language development (Faulkner & Pisoni, 2013). Researches in different contexts show that there is great variability in the spoken language skills (Duchesne, Sutton, & Bergeron, 2009; Geers & Hayes, 2011; Geers, Moog, Biedenstein, Brenner, & Hayes, 2009; Pisoni et al., 2008). This diversity in the results of the oral intervention has also been recognized by professionals in our State (Sanchez Amat, 2015, p. 457). That is why a change of perspective is so necessary, to stop perceiving sign language as negative, as can be seen in Mr. Aedo’s statement, and to recognize its importance in the deaf children’s development.
● In Catalonia, the evolution of schooling in recent years shows that as education level increases, the percentage of deaf students in sign bilingual education also increases (Sánchez Amat, 2015, p. 402-405). It should be noted that in Barcelona, the only city in Catalonia offering various forms of education for deaf children (this does not include students of the Special Education Centre Josep Pla, a sign bilingual institution), in 2009-2010, 13% of preschool 3-6 year-old deaf students were in sign bilingual education, while they represented 43% at the stage of non-university post-compulsory education (school, training and integration program and training programs). During 2014-2015 the situation was similar: students in sign bilingual education represented 16% of deaf pre-school students, whereas they were 58% in post-compulsory education. These facts indicate that deaf students come into contact with sign language at later ages. Therefore, unlike the situation raised by Mr. Aedo, the data indicate that deaf students probably continue their studies thanks to sign language, not despite it. Consequently, the fact that parents do not know sign language is due in part to the deaf students’ trajectories and to the current type of intervention, which cause that families of deaf children and deaf children learn sign language belatedly.
Unfortunately, prejudices existing even today in certain groups, as those stated by the president of FIAPAS, are detrimental to the rights of deaf children when it comes to having full language development, regardless of the language that makes it possible, and cognitive development. We state it in terms of rights of deaf children because we echo what has been previously advocated by other authors (eg. Sara Trovato in 2013, Humphries et al. in 2014 and Mellon et al. in 2015). Deaf children have the right to be provided with sign language because they have the right to physical and psychological integrity. In no case, of course, are we setting this language above any other, but we emphasize the need to also provide them with sign language. We hope that prejudices towards bilingualism between spoken languages and sign languages suffer the same fate that the existing prejudices a few decades back towards bilingualism among spoken languages, to ensure a full future for deaf children.
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Chamberlain, C., & Mayberry, R. I. (2008). American Sign Language syntactic and narrative comprehension in skilled and less skilled readers: Bilingual and bimodal evidence for the linguistic basis of reading. Applied Psycholinguistics, 29(3), 367-388.
Dubuisson, C., Parisot, A.-M., & Vercaingne-Ménard, A. (2008). Bilingualism and deafness. Correlations between deaf students’ ability to use space in Quebec Sign Language and their reading comprehension in French. In C. Plaza-Pust & E. Morales-López (Ed.), Sign bilingualism: language development, interaction, and maintenance in sign language contact situations (p. 51-71). Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
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