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Narrowing the focus on sign bilingualism

The language lives of Deaf people involve constantly moving between languages.

(Padden 1998b: 100)

Research into deaf individuals’ bilingualism involving the sign language of the surrounding deaf community and the oral language of the majority hearing society, commonly referred to as sign bilingualism, is a relatively new phenomenon. This is related to the circumstance that deaf individuals have been perceived as bilingual language users only upon the gradual recognition of sign languages as fully-fledged languages as of the 1960s (Grosjean 2008; Padden 1998a). Signers’ reports on their own language socialisation and their lack of awareness that they were bilingual (Kuntze 1998) are an indication of how monolingual (oral only) education and the lack of recognition of sign languages as a full languages affected the identities of deaf individuals. Padden and Humphries (2005: 157), two renowned deaf scholars working in the USA, highlight the sense of pride brought about by the recognition of sign languages as full languages when they state that “[t]o possess a language that is not quite like other languages, yet equal to them, is a powerful realization for a group of people who have long felt their language disrespected and besieged by others’ attempts to eliminate it.”

Breaking with the monopoly of a pathological view of deafness, political activism of deaf associations and related interest groups over the last decades has led to a wider perception of deaf individuals as bilingual language users in the academic area and society at large. Studies dedicated to language contact in deaf communities have provided valuable insights into sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic aspects of patterns of language use and cross-modal language contact phenomena (cf. Boyes Braem & Sutton-Spence 2001; Brentari 2001; Lucas & Valli 1992). Sign bilinguals, like other bilinguals, have been found to code-switch for stylistic purposes or an increase in communicative efficiency, using not only a sequential combination of elements of the two languages, as it commonly occurs in spoken language contact situations, but also a simultaneous type of mixing of the two languages (code-blending, cf. Emmorey et al. 2008), which can be taken as an indication of the sophistication of language contact phenomena involving two languages that differ in their modality of expression. However, little is known about bilingual language acquisition in deaf learners, whose language development has been traditionally regarded as an idiosyncratic phenomenon owing to hearing loss.

What ethnographic studies into the bilingual lives of deaf signers have revealed over the last years is that there are multiple routes to bilingualism in deaf communities (cf. Yang 2008; Lane et al. 1996). While deaf bilinguals’ testimonies reflect unique personal histories, they all mirror the intricate interplay of internal and external factors that determines sign bilingualism. Certainly, internal and external factors conspire also in other types of language development, as we pointed out previously. Yet variation in deaf individuals’ linguistic profiles makes apparent that sign bilingualism is determined by two fundamental variables, namely, timing of exposure and accessibility of the languages involved. Crucially, while exposure to a natural, fully accessible language from birth can be taken for granted in hearing children, this is not always the case in deaf children.

Language acquisition in deaf children is bound to supportive measures because of two main circumstances, namely, (a) the unequal status of the languages at the level of parent-child transmission (more than 90 % of deaf children are born to hearing non-signing parents) and (b) the unequal accessibility of the languages (no or only limited access to auditory input). Because of these circumstances the path toward bilingualism in deaf children is not primarily bound to the family, but to linguistic experiences in their social environment. Education, as we know from bilingualism research is also a crucial factor for the development and maintenance of other types of bilingualism. However, in the case of sign bilingualism supportive measures are a fundamental requirement for deaf children’s acquisition of either language, which points to the relevance of an alignment of research, policy and practice when it comes to the conception and implementation of sign bilingual education programmes.

It becomes apparent then that the cross-disciplinary approach advocated previously for a comprehensive understanding of bilingualism is even more pertinent for an appropriate comprehension of the development of bilingualism in learners for whom exposure and use of the languages they acquire are crucially determined by socio-political factors. Consequently, in our study on language contact in the development of bilingualism in deaf learners we are confronted, on the one hand, with the task of addressing questions concerning scope and quality of the measures provided to foster the acquisition of sign language and oral language in this population, and, on the other hand, with the challenge of accounting for the development of two languages that are not equal to deaf learners, in terms of accessibility and use.

Bilingual education, used as a notion to refer to education including the use of sign language as the primary language of deaf individuals, is one of the central demands of deaf associations and related interest groups. Yet, little is known about how this concept is translated into the reality of the bilingual classroom with deaf students. Several reports about individual bilingual education programmes established as of the late 20th century are available. However, there is no systematic study of the educational conceptions implemented. Could it be the case that despite the common goal of promoting sign language as a primary language, variation also occurs in the education of deaf students along components identified for bilingual education in general, revealing that different, possibly contradicting, objectives are pursued?

Turning to bilingual deaf learners, we acknowledge that only little is known about their bilingual development. Longitudinal studies of family bilingualism, unlike in research on hearing children’s bilingual development, are rare, which comes as no surprise given the aforementioned circumstance that the path toward sign bilingualism is seldom determined by the family. Several cohorts of bilingually educated deaf students have been investigated in the context of research concomitant to bilingual education programmes. Yet, for their greater part, the available studies represent statistical correlation studies undertaken from an educational linguistics perspective that offer little insight into learners’ progressive attainment of two distinct language systems. Other studies have been dedicated to the attainment of linguistic skills in either sign language or oral language, providing a fragmented picture of an acquisition situation that is rather marked by intensive language contact, which is, however, seldom taken into consideration. As Padden (1998b: 102) puts it, “the result is an incomplete view of the dual language lives of Deaf children.”

Given the attention that has been paid to cross-modal language contact phenomena in the productions of adult signers, the little interest in the investigation of these phenomena in young bilingual learners is all the more surprising. Indeed, a review of the available literature reveals that the interaction of the two languages is investigated primarily with a view to determining the impact of sign language knowledge on bilingually educated deaf learners’ literacy skills, in the spirit of Cummins’ Interdependence hypothesis (1991).

Studies that would specifically address similarities and differences between bilingual deaf learners and other bilingual learners in the light of current hypotheses in bilingualism research are virtually non-existent. The specific circumstances that determine exposure and access to the two languages in deaf children raise a number of issues concerning the organisation of multilingual knowledge in these learners. For the majority of deaf children with non-signing hearing parents, for whom exposure to both languages is commonly delayed, the question arises as to whether the development of their learner grammars equally reflects a progressive structural expansion, as has been found to be the case of other types of learners. The question is not only critical concerning their written language development (deaf learners are commonly assumed to reach learning plateaus relatively early in their development); it is of equal relevance concerning their sign language development because of the specific input conditions (delayed exposure, limited use in the family).

In research dedicated to hearing bilingual learners of two spoken languages it has been argued that the sophisticated combination of two distinct grammars in learners’ mixed utterances not only reveals the structures available in either language, but also shows that learners tacitly know, by virtue of their innate language endowment (that is, universal grammar), that grammars are alike in fundamental ways (Gawlitzek-Maiwald & Tracy 1996; Genesee 2002, among others). Deaf children are confronted with the task of acquiring two languages that differ in their modality of expression. Questions that arise in view of the modality difference concern the potential interaction between two languages that seem so far apart if regarded at the surface level only. In other words, and more in line with the creative aspect of language contact mentioned previously: Do bilingual signers, like other bilinguals, too, pool their linguistic resources? And if so: What are the biological and environmental factors that enable them to creatively profit from their bilingualism?

As we are about to embark in the endeavour of clarifying the questions raised it will be useful to briefly outline the journey ahead.

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