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Modelling bilingualism and deafness in education

The (re-)introduction of sign language in deaf education as of the late 20th century is related to broader social developments pertaining to such diverse issues as the status of linguistic minorities and language rights, models of disability, and equity of access in education. Changes in the attitudes towards these issues in the society at large, in turn, affected the views of deaf individuals about their bilingualism and their language rights.

Based on the distinction of bottom-up, top-down, and holistic language planning scenarios elaborated in section 1.2.3, our comparison across countries regarding the agents involved and the activities taken in the development and establishment of bilingual education programmes reveals that in the majority of cases the inclusion of sign language is the result of bottom-up activities. Sweden marks an exception as the top-down model of language planning adopted in that country resulted in the institutionalisation of bilingual education of deaf students. Pilot programmes such as the ones established in Montreal or Berlin also represent exceptional cases in that bottom-up and top-down activities are combined. To the extent that such experimental programmes have to fulfil a political mandate to undertake concomitant research they might contribute to a more balanced information flow in the research-policy-practice axis, which in turn might work toward the eventual consolidation of the bilingual education option and its improvement.

Turning to sign bilingual education models, it is important to note that the inclusion of sign language in a bilingual approach to deaf education does not represent a monolithic phenomenon as might be expected given the specific acquisition situation of deaf learners. Notice that sign bilingual education is also used as a general notion in the scientific community and by deaf activists and related interest groups to refer to the bilingual promotion of deaf learners, whereby sign language is attributed the status of the primary language.

The systematic study of sign bilingual education, its status, distribution, and main components reveals that it is rather characterised by variation concerning when, where and how deaf learners are exposed to sign language and oral language (section 1.3.2). As it turns out, sign bilingual education programmes vary along the components identified also for other types of bilingual education, namely, (a) status of the languages, (b) language competences envisaged, (c) institutional placement, (d) students enrolled, and (e) allocation of the languages on the curriculum. Furthermore, we found that the scope of variation observed in sign bilingual education, as in other types of bilingual education, reflects different objectives and language planning models, with different actors involved in the design and in the planning of deaf education.

In our critical appraisal of the main variables determining bilingual education, we paid special attention to the status attributed to sign language. Based on the insights obtained in the area of developmental linguistics (relevance of natural input during the sensitive period, developmental sequence of sign language acquisition comparable to that observed in spoken language acquisition), there is general agreement at the theoretical level that sign language be promoted as early as possible as a primary language. However, there is substantial variation at the level of practice regarding this important requirement. While measures are taken to ensure an early exposure where sign bilingual education is institutionalised, the requirement of an early exposure is often not met in those social contexts where medical advice and early intervention continue to be predominantly oralist. Further, bilingual programmes are usually unequally distributed at the level of a country or region, and often regarded as the last resort option for students that fail in oral programmes. Consequently, what is envisaged as the primary promotion of the natural language of deaf learners often winds up in a delayed acquisition of the language in a formal environment. Variation in the exposure to the language is also determined by the type of educational placement at which sign bilingual education is offered. Students in interpreted education settings often learn the language while using the language to learn; other deaf children attending co-enrolment classes are native users of the language and do not receive additional instruction in the properties of their L1, which differs from the contrastive teaching approach adopted in the context of bilingual education programmes offered at several special schools.

Variation in the status attributed to the spoken language vis-a-vis the written language reflects diverging views about written language acquisition, on the one hand, and socio-political expectations, on the other hand. The latter are often oriented toward emphasising the role of speech in the surrounding society. Unfortunately, comparative research that would provide further insights into the models

of written language acquisition adopted by professionals and the methods they use for its teaching continues to be scarce.

Variation in the importance attributed to the bicultural component of sign bilingual education affects not only the identity of the students but also the role assigned to deaf teachers as role models (linguistically and culturally). The little attention paid to this important dimension of sign bilingualism reflects a generalised view that regards sign language primarily as a teaching tool.

With regard to variation in the type of educational placement at which bilingual education is offered we remarked on the generalised trend toward mainstreaming in most countries of the Western world. This is not to say that the more general question about the right shelter for sign bilingualism in education would have been conclusively established. Indeed, many issues remain unresolved regarding the socialisation of deaf students, their acquisition and use of the two languages, the qualification of teachers and interpreters involved in this type of education to meet the linguistic, cognitive and learning needs of deaf students. Clearly, the increasing heterogeneity of the deaf student population faces educational institutions with the challenge of catering for individual needs while ensuring equity of access for all. Because linguistic preferences cannot be determined a priori, catering for diversity should be conceived of in a dynamic manner, allowing for linguistic profiles to change over time. On this view, deaf children are exposed to a rich linguistic environment including the use of sign language and oral language early on. Clearly, such an approach differs radically from a consecutive adoption of different methods depending on the children’s response, which often renders bilingual education a last resort option. Unfortunately, this practice is advocated by an increasing number of scholars in the field of deaf education in the current discussion about how to cater best for diversity.

In summarising, the spectrum of intervention types available throughout the world can be seen on a continuum that ranges from a monolingual (oralist) to a (sign) bilingual model of deaf education, with several intermediate options characterised by the use of signs as a supportive means or the teaching of sign language as a second language. While this situation reflects an increasing diversification of options in deaf education, we also have to acknowledge that the spectrum of options is not equally accessible at the level of a country or a region. What is more, many deaf students are confronted not only with changes in educational placement but also in educational method in the course of their school lives. From the perspective of language planning, this variation reflects the continuing lack of a coherent policy. While shortcomings at this level are often associated with a lack of recognition of the respective sign language, we also noted that the legal recognition of national sign languages in several countries has often wound up in a paradoxical situation, whereby the right of language choice is granted,

however, without a stipulation that the necessary measures be taken to make the choice possible.

From a language planning perspective, we argued in favour of a holistic model that would involve all stakeholders (i.e. administration, speech therapists, teachers, parents, deaf associations, interpreters) with the aim of guaranteeing an alignment of research, policy and practice to ensure that all necessary measures be taken (such as, teacher training, the creation of materials specifically devised for sign bilingual learners, definition of a bilingual methodology specifically devised for the promotion of sign language-oral language bilingualism). Coordinated action, as we believe, is a requisite for an effective use of the human and financial resources available. Yet, as the present study makes apparent, this holistic type of language planning is virtually non-existent when it comes to the education of deaf students. Demands, measures, and expectations of the different parties involved vary substantially. It becomes apparent also that language choice does not only involve a decision about the opportunity to become bilingual, but that it is also crucially associated with expectations of academic achievements and social integration. The spectrum of options in deaf education, much like the continuum of bilingual education options targeting hearing students, is the result of various conspiring factors. Models of bilingual education, as we learn from sociolinguistic research, reflect different values attributed to bilingualism. Between the two extreme views of bilingualism as a resource and bilingualism as a problem, there is a continuum of views on advantages and challenges associated with the acquisition and use of more than one language, which is reflected in turn in a variety of education conceptions that range from a monolingual orientation to a promotion of the two languages.

While this observation holds equally of deaf education, it is important to acknowledge that the scope of variation encountered here is determined not only by the problem-resource continuum that characterises views about bilingualism but also by variation in the conception of deafness, with a primarily pathological and a primarily socio-cultural view at the two ends of a continuum. The intersection of these two continua (cf. Figure 5.1) derives a broad spectrum of views about bilingualism and deafness. In our view, part of the remaining shortcomings we identified in our critical appraisal of bilingual education programmes result from the adoption of positions that acknowledge the use of sign language as an educational tool but do not envisage full bilingualism as an educational objective.

In this respect, we noted that the goal-oriented argumentation in favour of the inclusion of sign language (as a means to improve deaf children’s social, emotional, cognitive and academic development) has proven to be fruitful to the extent that it contributed to the establishment of bilingual programmes despite the predominant trend towards mainstreaming in oral only contexts. At the same we remarked that the eventual success of these programmes depends on a well-defined conception of sign bilingual education that takes the bilingual development of deaf students, qua bilingual communicators, seriously. Put bluntly, it is not sufficient to regard bilingualism as a means and sign language as an educational tool for the teaching/learning of the oral language. Where bilingualism is regarded as a temporary phenomenon deaf students’ bilingualism is deprived from the multiple meaningful dimensions that make up the concept of sign bilingualism as a resource. In this respect, research needs to inform policy and practice, also, as we pointed out, about the potential remaining shortcomings, for it is only by providing critical feedback that those circumstances could be tackled that might prevent it from being implemented in a better way.

Intersection of views of bilingualism and of deafness

Figure 5.1: Intersection of views of bilingualism and of deafness.

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