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Variation in sign bilingual education: a critical appraisal

As outlined previously, the primary promotion of sign language is a characteristic of sign bilingual education conceptions at the programmatic level. Yet, how is this demand put into practice? What are the main components of this type of bilingual education? Are sign bilingual education programmes established in the last decades based on a common didactic conception? In this section, we will seek to clarify these issues based on the findings obtained in our study on sign bilingual education which we elaborate in detail in Plaza-Pust (2016). In doing so, we will adopt a cross-disciplinary view of bilingualism, in which educational, psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic aspects are taken into consideration. We will focus on the key variables of how bilingual education is put into practice, and critically appraise those factors that might affect the development of sign bilingualism in deaf students.

In a nutshell, what can be gleaned from the study undertaken is that sign bilingual education programmes vary along the components identified previously for bilingual education in general (section pertaining to the status of the languages and their allocation on the curriculum as well as the language competences envisaged, the choice of the educational placement, and the students’ language background.

Sign language: status and timing of exposure. Because the majority of deaf children are born to non-signing hearing parents, the early exposure to sign language is a critical issue when it comes to how bilingual education is being put into practice, whereby information and involvement of the parents is an important factor. The promotion of sign language as the first language of deaf children is one of the main tenets of sign bilingual education at a programmatic level. That sign language be promoted as early as possible as the primary language is a requirement that is based on insights obtained in the area of developmental linguistics concerning the relevance of natural language input during the sensitive period for language acquisition (cf. Bavelier et al. 2003; Fischer 1998; Grosjean 2008; Leuninger 2000). Because deaf learners have limited or no access to the spoken language, sign language is regarded as the natural language of deaf children on accessibility grounds. Further, the social and communicative (interactive) aspect is also taken into account by some scholars highlighting the status of sign language as the social/peer language of deaf students.

These considerations contrast with the heterogeneity in age of exposure at the level of practice. Unfortunately, the requirement of an early exposure to sign language is often not met and deaf children reach the bilingual programme with little or no sign language competence at all. To date, little is known about how and when sign language is acquired by the majority of deaf children with non-signing hearing parents (see Bagga-Gupta 2004: 137; Singleton et al. 1998: 19). What can be gleaned from the studies available is that the acquisition scenario is affected by several factors outside the home, such as the predominantly oralist orientation of medical advice upon diagnosis and of early intervention programmes, and the unequal regional distribution of bilingual programmes. Not only are bilingual programmes often established as pilot programmes with a limited scope (in terms of the time available and the number of students catered for). What is more, the use of sign language continues to be regarded as a last resort option for those students who fail in oralist programmes. Clearly, the “repairing” myth of deaf education does not fit well with what we know about language acquisition and the relevance of natural language input during the sensitive period for language acquisition as a requisite for the successful unfolding of the language faculty. A specific situation arises in interpreted education, where students attend regular classes in a mainstream school, supported by sign language interpreting. In this type of education, many students are required to learn the language whilst using the language to learn, receiving language input from adult models who are mostly not native users of the language (Cokely 2005).

To attribute sign language the status of a primary or preferred language irrespective of the language used at home also raises the question about the domains of deaf children’s sign language use. Although parents are encouraged to learn the language, and some programmes include the provision of sign language courses, the focus of research is generally limited to the institutional framework. Hence, the knowledge that can be gleaned from the available research offers only a limited insight into the multilingual lives of deaf students, their language acquisition and communication practices at home and in their leisure time.

In more flexible conceptions of sign bilingualism, the status attributed to sign language is a matter of choice, whereby the definition of the “preferred language” is related to the individual needs and abilities of the children (Knight & Swanwick 2002: 30). This might involve a change of the bilingual policy adopted initially depending on the development of the child and also the demands of the curriculum (Knight & Swanwick 2002: 30). Crucially, however, because the choice of the preferred language cannot be determined a priori it is important to ensure deaf children’s early access to diverse linguistic experiences irrespective of their degree of deafness (Knight & Swanwick 2002: 55).

Oral language: status and timing of spoken language and written language promotion. The oral language is commonly attributed the status of a second language (L2) in sign bilingual education programmes (Bagga-Gupta 2004; Gunther 1999; Gunther et al. 2004; Krausneker 2008; Vercaingne-Menard et al. 2005; Yang 2008). Variation in oral language promotion pertaining to the time of exposure (simultaneous to sign language exposure or at a later age) or the emphasis on written language vs. the spoken language reflect (a) different conceptions of the relationship between the spoken and the written language, (b) different theories about the acquisition of literacy, and (c) different views about the promotion of the spoken language as an educational goal.

In many programmes, the status attributed to the oral language depends on the individual characteristics and needs of the students. Based on a holistic view of language development, the promotion of written and spoken language skills is assumed to constitute a requisite to fulfil the core education goal of preparing students for their adult life in the hearing and the deaf worlds (Gunther 1999: 23, Krausmann 2004b: 17). Activities aimed at enhancing the children’s awareness of the meaning of the written language are a fundamental component of some preschool programmes offered in special schools or in bilingual classes at regular educational settings (Ardito et al. 2008). The bilingual conception of the Berlin programme, for example, emphasises the primary promotion of the written language based on (a) the full accessibility of print and (b) the relative autonomy of the written language, which implies that the acoustic perception of the language is not regarded as a requirement for its acquisition (Krausmann 2004b: 14-15). In other words, the assumption is that written language can be acquired independently from the spoken language (see section 2.4.2 for a discussion of this hypothesis). The relevance of the written language is not only emphasised with respect to deaf children’s literary and academic development, but also as a medium of communication with the hearing society, and hence, as an important requisite for integration and participation in society (Krausmann 2004b: 17).

Choice of the language(s) of instruction. One crucial variable in bilingual education pertains to the choice of the main language(s) of instruction. In some bilingual education programmes with deaf students all curriculum subjects are taught in sign language. This is the case of the bilingual education programmes established in Sweden or one of the bilingual programmes available in France (in Toulouse, IRIS, cf. Leroy 2005: 73). In some other programmes, the languages are not strictly allocated by subject but are used alternatively in classes taught by deaf and hearing teachers in collaboration (team-teaching). This was the case in the Quebec programme, particularly in the language lessons (Quebec Sign Language, LSQ and French) (Vercaingne-Menard et al. 2005: 4, fn 1), and in the Hamburg and Berlin programmes (consider the notion of a continuous bilingual- ity in the classroom elaborated by Gunther 1999). Particularly during the initial phases of the bilingual development it is assumed that the person-related use of the languages (one-person-one language principle) not only serves as an additional cue to differentiate the two codes (Vercaingne-Menard et al. 2005), but also as a means to enhance the students’ awareness about an appropriate language choice (cf. Krausmann 2004b: 13).

However, despite the benefits attributed to team-teaching, this method is seldom used in the teaching of the whole syllabus. In the Hamburg programme, for example, team-teaching covered 8 hours a week, which amounts to one third of the total teaching load (cf. Gunther 1999a: 12, 22); in the Berlin programme it covered 15 hours a week (cf. Krausmann 2004b: 25). The distribution of the languages at the Berlin programme, as described in one of the school reports, is summarised in Table 1.3 (Krausmann 2004b: 25).

Table 1.3: Distribution of languages on the curriculum at the Berlin bilingual programme.






bilingual language and content teaching

DGS, German with LBG

team teaching hours (class teacher and deaf teacher)


sports, swimming


deaf teachers


mathematics, religion, rhythmic/music, arts

German with LBG

hearing teachers

Unfortunately, we know little about how the language(s) are used in the institutional setting and whether there is a differential use of the language depending on the different subjects and activities in the school context. Put bluntly, it is important to ensure that where sign language is used as a language of instruction it is used as an academic language, so that the students can use it for knowledge attainment and to demonstrate the knowledge attained; clearly, the functions attributed to the language in the academic context need to be distinguished from the use of the language as a communication language outside the classroom.

The controversial status of signed systems. Today, the use of simultaneous communication in the field of deaf education continues to be widespread, although critiques pointing to the shortcomings of these hybrid communication means have been abundant. The main concerns expressed pertain to (a) the status of signed systems vis-a-vis natural languages, and (b) the impact of signed systems on deaf learners’ language acquisition.

From the perspective of developmental linguistics the benefit of the use of signed systems is questioned on fundamental grounds given the relevance of natural language input for the acquisition of language. A widespread misconception, particularly at the level of practice (that is, in the education of deaf children) is that signed systems would represent the language they duplicate in another modality of expression. Linguistic analysis clearly shows that they do not. Furthermore, it must be noted that the creation of signed systems represents an intervention into the architectural principles of sign languages that underlie their efficacy as language systems, not only in language use, but also in the development of language. For example, the use of sequential morphemes in signed English systems (MCE) to represent inflected spoken language verbs violates the morphological and phonological constraints that hold of sign languages (to express “watching”, for instance, the signs watch and the sign -ing need to be produced sequentially). Children confronted with these forms have been found to fail to correctly identify the signed “affixes” as part of the verb roots, interpreting them rather as unbound morphemes (Supalla & Cripps 2008: 184). As Supalla and Cripps (2008: 185) put it, “an adoption of the spoken language structure (for the signed medium) will only lead to the linguistic system losing its learnability variable.” Observations like these make apparent that an appropriate understanding of bimodal productions requires not only knowledge of the signs used, but also knowledge of the grammar simultaneous productions are meant to reflect (Johnson et al. 1989: 19). Consequently, the use of signed systems leads to a paradoxical situation as it requires knowledge of the language whose acquisition it is supposed to enhance. Nevertheless, signed systems continue to be used in bilingual settings, a practice that reflects unresolved issues pertaining to communication between hearing adults and deaf children, and the means that should be used in the teaching of the oral language.

Educational placements and the concept of inclusion. One important variable in deaf education concerns the type of institutional framework in which bilingual education is offered. Several options are available within and without the bounds of special schools, ranging from special schools with a sign bilingual education policy to the provision of interpreted education on an individual basis at a regular school, with intermediate options such as the provision of bilingual classes at schools for the deaf or units for deaf students in the mainstream.

Variation in educational placements catering for deaf students reflects the change in the conception of disability from a linear, medical, deficit-oriented understanding of disability toward a systemic approach that also considers the social aspects of disability (WHO 2001). In the same vein, integration is regarded as preferable to segregation. Hence the general trend toward mainstreaming, and the closing of many special schools in several countries worldwide. However, in the European context, Germany stands out, together with Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland by pursuing a two track approach in the form of two separate education systems, whereby segregated education for students with special education needs continues to be the rule (European Agency for Special Needs Education 2003). Today, although proportions of deaf students attending regular schools in Germany have raised, integration continues to be the exception for deaf children (Leonhardt 2009: 182).

Special schools. Special schools defining themselves as clearly bilingual aim at providing a comprehensive framework for the bilingual/bicultural education of deaf students. The bilingual policy of the school is reflected in the commitment of the staff (including deaf and hearing teachers) to the bilingual idea, the promotion of deaf children’s deaf identity and socialisation. In many other cases, however, bilingual programmes at special schools for the deaf represent one educational option among others, offered at the premises of one and the same school (the case of the Hamburg school for the deaf). Other schools opt for tailoring their offer to the individual needs and abilities of the students based on an “open bilingual” concept (the case of the Berlin school for the deaf, cf. Mobius 2011: 166).

Mainstreaming. Turning to bilingual education in the mainstream, we are confronted with several options, including co-enrolment classes with deaf and hearing students, units of deaf students and interpreted education in regular classrooms. In the first and the third type, all children are taught in the same classroom. The unit model caters for deaf children in separate classes at regular schools, where they are taught by specialist staff (Knight & Swanwick 1999: 125). For some curricular areas deaf children might be integrated into mainstream classes.

Particularly in the USA a widespread alternative to bilingual education in special schools is the provision of sign language interpreters in regular classrooms, following the general trend toward educating deaf children in regular schools. Interpreted education is also provided in Spain, particularly in secondary education. As for the development of sign bilingualism in the mainstream, several studies remark on remaining shortcomings regarding (a) the students’ sign language skills, (b) the qualifications of teachers and interpreters involved,

(c) the teaching-learning situation, and (d) the availability of role models. A particularly critical aspect of interpreted education concerns deaf student’s acquisition of sign language. Mastery of the language needs to be ensured, not only identified as her L1, for “this language is the means by which she is going to access education” (Monikowski 2004: 50). Unfortunately, it is often taken for granted that students’ attending this type of education either know the language or acquire it through interpretation.

Co-enrolment classes, such as the one established at a regular school in Vienna (Krausneker 2008), where hearing and deaf children were taught by a deaf and a hearing teacher, have been found to work well, but often remain temporary education experiences. The reasons for their temporal limitation are diverse, including the small number of deaf children native in sign language, or the limited time of the political mandate.

Students’ profiles. Sign bilingual education programmes cater for a heterogeneous student population. The linguistic profiles of the students enrolled vary with respect to (a) hearing status, (b) linguistic background, (c) use of hearing aid technology, and (d) additional learning problems.

As was explained previously, deaf and hearing children are taught in the same classroom in some types of bilingual education (co-enrolment, interpreted education). Variation in students’ profiles is often overlooked in these educational settings, even though adaptations to meet the linguistic abilities and learning needs of deaf children would also be necessary (Marschark et al. 2005). Demographic changes relating to migration are also reflected in the deaf student population (Andrews & Covell 2006). It is clear that the concept of bilingual education, if taken literally (that is, involving two languages only) is not doing justice to the diversity that characterises deaf student populations in many countries, including deaf students with a migration background some of whom reach deaf schools without any language knowledge because in their country of origin deaf education was not available.

The increasing number of deaf children with cochlear implants adds a new dimension to the heterogeneity of linguistic profiles in deaf individuals. While most of the children with a CI are educated in the mainstream, there are also many attending bilingual programmes, either as a consequence of their low academic achievements in the mainstream or because the provision of a CI occurred at a later age. The generalised rejection of sign language by medical and educational professionals involved in the education of these children contrasts with the view adopted by advocates of the bilingual option also for cochlear implanted children who argue in favour of the use of sign language as a safety net (Bavelier et al. 2003). Such a safety net is regarded as necessary in view of the circumstance that a cochlear implant is not a remedy for deafness, and of remaining uncertainties about its long-term use (Svartholm 2007). Finally, many deaf students that are catered for in bilingual education programmes have additional learning problems that need to be tackled. Unfortunately, the impact of a sign bilingual promotion in this population remains largely unexplored.

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