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Sign bilingual education

The notion of sign bilingual education emerges in socio-political, educational and linguistic discourses as of the 1980s as a notion to refer to an educational philosophy that differed radically from the available approaches in that it included the use of sign language as the or one of the language(s) of instruction in a bilingual model of deaf education (cf. Johnson et al. 1989; Knight & Swanwick 2002; Singleton et al. 1998). Before we turn to the developments leading to the conception and implementation of bilingual programmes in the late 20th century, it is necessary to briefly sketch the changing status attributed to sign and sign language over time.

Early use of signs and sign language. It is important to note in this context that signs and sign language have been used in the education of deaf students well before the implementation of the first bilingual education programmes in the late 20th century. Early records of deaf education reveal that manual means of communication were used in the teaching of deaf students. However, sign language was not recognised as a language or its users as bilinguals. As we elaborate in Plaza-Pust (2016), the history of deaf education is “not only marked by developments specific to the teaching/learning situation of deaf children (...) but also by changes in the society at large.” We may think of the increasing urbanisation in many Western countries, or the provision of universal primary education in the second half of the 19th century, reflecting important changes in societies’ structures and values.

Changes in the history of deaf education. From the earliest records of deaf education in the 16th century to the late 19th century, views of deafness and education have changed dramatically. In a nutshell, major changes in the education of deaf students pertain to (a) the people or institutions in charge, (b) the number of children served, (c) the language(s) of instruction, (d) the educational setting, and (e) the methods used.

If deaf education was roughly limited to the teaching of individual deaf students from the aristocracy by individual private tutors around the 16th century, it reached larger groups of students taught in deaf schools in the late 19th century. The first known private tutors dedicated to the teaching of deaf students in the 16th century focused on the teaching/learning of the written language. Manual alphabets were used in the teaching of the spelling of words and in the communication between deaf and hearing individuals (possibly including also the use of signs). Progressively, the teaching of deaf students would be oriented towards the attainment of the spoken language, with an increasing attention to speechreading and articulation. The focus on the external control of speech would be superseded later by professionals emphasising their students’ inner sensation of the speech motor activity. A major change of orientation pertains to role attributed to listening skills. Their promotion in the teaching of students with hearing loss is marked by advances in the development of hearing aid technology in the late 19th century and early 20th century and a focus on children’s residual hearing. What we can glean from the developments sketched is that the education of deaf students is marked by changes in the understanding of deafness, language and speech processing throughout the last five centuries: from the recognition of deaf students’ ability to learn and use the written language for communicative purposes to the realisation that residual hearing could be used in the teaching/ learning of the spoken language, the evolution of professionals’ understanding of deafness has been reflected in the elaboration of a variety of methods aiming at remedying the effects of deafness.

The role attributed to signs or sign language also changes in the course of these five centuries from the use of signing as a supportive means of communication between deaf and hearing individuals, and the later recognition of sign language as the natural language of deaf individuals, to its rejection in the education of deaf students by advocates of oral education exclusively oriented toward the attainment of the spoken language.

Following de l’Epee’s practice in the school of the deaf he had founded in the 18th century in Paris, several educational institutions adopted the method of using a signed system to teach deaf students the written language. In the late 19th century, however, the spread of this method was brought to a halt owing to the increasing influence of the advocates of a monolingual oralist approach to deaf education. The much cited major event that triggered the change of direction that has prevailed until today was the congress on deaf education held in Milan in 1880. The resolution adopted in this congress involved a rejection of sign language and a declaration of superiority of the oral method vis-a-vis the manual method. However, as signs and sign language continued to be used outside the classroom, schools for the deaf would continue to represent important sites of language contact and the development of sign bilingualism, even though the notion of this type of bilingualism was not conceived of at the time. By contrast, the developments occurring in classrooms with deaf students were marked by an increasing rejection of the use of visual means in the teaching/learning of the spoken language as audition and the promotion of listening skills became the focus of attention. Hence, oralism would predominate the field of deaf education until the late 20th century.

Sign bilingual education on the agenda. The inclusion of sign language in a bilingual approach to deaf education in the late 20th century is commonly regarded as the result of a convergence of developments in the socio-political, educational and academic areas. From a historical perspective, however, it is important to note that discourses in these areas have only progressively converged (cf. Plaza-Pust 2016 for an extended discussion).

In educational discourse, sign bilingual education emerged as an alternative to monolingual approaches to deaf education, including the Total Communication approach advocating the use of simultaneous spoken/signed communication, an approach that was deemed inappropriate as a basis for natural language development. Changes concerning communication and travel during the latter half of the 20th century increased opportunities to exchange and disseminate knowledge, contributing also to a rapid spread of the ideas associated with the Deaf movement and the demand of bilingual education (Bagga-Gupta 2004: 48) (cf. section The developments depicted also run on a par with a change of perspective on disability that derived in a social model of disability, whereby disability is understood in relation to the social context and the environment developed by non-disabled people (Knight & Swanwick 2002: 29; cf. also Dommguez-Gutierrez & Alonso-Baxeiras 2004: 16). Humanitarian principles leading to the development of this model began circulating in the 1960s, at the time of the Civil Rights movement, when many of society’s stereotypes were questioned (Winzer 1993: 376). Finally, one crucial factor in the implementation of bilingual education programmes pertains to support and engagement of deaf children’s parents. Indeed, parents’ initiatives have played a key role at the socio-political level. Their dissatisfaction with the available educational options and informed decision to demand the implementation of the alternative sign bilingual option provided the impetus for the set up of the first experimental classes in Sweden and Denmark (Mahshie 1995: xxxiii).

As pointed out in Plaza-Pust (2016), the comparison of the developments leading to the implementation of sign bilingual education programmes in several countries toward the end of the 20th century makes apparent how local circumstances interact with global issues. In Germany, for example, the first bilingual classes were implemented in the school year 1993/4 at the Hamburg school for the deaf (Gunther 1999: 11). Several factors contributed to this development, among them the results of the first early intervention experimentation including the use of signs (though not sign language) and related demand for the continuity of the experience (upon the parents’ initiative) and progress in research on DGS. The potential influence of experiences in other countries, notably, Scandinavian countries, is qualified by Gunther (1999: 11) as information on these experiences became available only in the course of the bilingual experience.

Sign bilingual education as an option. From a linguistic perspective the spectrum of intervention types targeting deaf students that is available today in various countries throughout the world can be seen on a continuum that ranges from a strictly monolingual (oralist) to a (sign) bilingual model of deaf education, with intermediate options characterised by the use of signs as a supportive means of communication or the teaching of sign language as a second language (Plaza-Pust 2004) (cf. Figure 1.2, in which the sign language input continuum is allocated on the bilingual education continuum discussed in section 1.3.1.)

Bilingual education and sign language input continua in deaf education

Figure 1.2: Bilingual education and sign language input continua in deaf education.

Roughly, three main approaches can be distinguished in the spectrum of intervention types available (cf. Plaza-Pust 2016 for a detailed discussion):

  • (a) Oralist approach. At the monolingual end of the continuum, deaf children are immersed in the majority language (the oral language). Deaf students in this type of education are confronted with the task of learning a language that they also have to use for the learning of content matter. Crucially, this language is not fully accessible to them, and, with the exception of deaf children born to parents native in sign language, they are learning it without a another fully developed L1. The remedy of deafness and the exclusive promotion of the oral language continue to lie at the heart of the educational philosophy termed oralism. Beyond the traditional view of rehabilitation oralism is guided by what is commonly dubbed as the philosophy of normalisation. From this perspective, which implies a deficit model of deafness, rehabilitation and intervention measures are necessary to remedy the effects of hearing loss, particularly in the areas disturbed, namely, audition/speech, communication and socialisation (GroBe 2001: 71).
  • (b) Total communication approach. The core tenet of this approach, as the notion suggests, is that all means of communication should be used in the interaction with the deaf child; in other words, aural, oral and manual modes of communication are combined in the teaching of and in the communication with deaf children to promote their appropriate social, cultural and emotional development. Further, it is assumed that the simultaneous use of signs and speech will make it easier for the child to learn the oral language, and by extension to attain better literacy skills. Manual codes developed for the representation of the oral language (signed systems) typically include elements of the surrounding sign language and additional signs, created for the representation of the grammatical elements of the spoken language, in particular, function words and bound morphology. It is important to note in this context that, although it represents a multisensory approach to deaf education, the total communication framework is still determined by the primacy of the oral language.
  • (c) Sign bilingual education. Sign bilingual/bicultural education is used as a notion to refer to a philosophy of education defined primarily by the use of sign language as the or one of the language(s) of instruction in the education of deaf students (Knight & Swanwick 2002). Because the language of the surrounding community is the spoken language and it is the language of literacy, access and provision of sign language to deaf children is bound to a bilingual concept of education. The bilingual model also acknowledges the bicultural dimension of a bilingual promotion through the inclusion of deaf teachers as role models and Deaf culture as a subject on the curriculum.
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