Radio Inspire

How To Learn Sign Language

Early exposure to ASL does NOT hinder spoken language development


So you at AG Bell have said that when a baby is born and has been exposed to ASL at an early age, that will hinder their speech development. And will continue to affect their speech development as they grow. You also said that a child should not be taught ASL but rather speech and listening at a very early age. If speech and listening is used, then the child will speak well as an adult. You say that, compared to children who are taught just to sign ASL or a combination of both ASL and speech, it seems that children who are taught speech and listening do better than those who are taught a combination. In your statement, you cited research by others. The quote from you that we just cited seems to have no source attributed to it. We, the department, have assumed that you are referring to these publications listed to the left of me on the screen here. They are all the same – they look at children who have been taught speech and total communication. (Some people sign “total communication” like this.) So, they look at children who use total communication. The problem with these studies is that we do not know the age at which these children started with oral or total communication. Were these children exposed straightaway at birth or did exposure occur at a later age? Who were the adult models that signed with the children? Were they deaf? Were they skilled at using the communication systems? Or did the hearing parents themselves communicate with the children on a daily basis? That’s the problem with those studies – they didn’t share that kind of information in their research. It’s important to consider what total communication really means. The goal of total communication is take all of these different communication methods like signed languages (ASL for example), speech, Signed Exact English (SEE), and so on and give those all to the child. That way the child has the opportunity to sample the different methods and then hone in to the ones that work for the child. So that’s the idea but the problem with total communication is that in practice, all of those systems that are supposed to be put forth for the child are not actually shared in practice. Instead what happens is communication becomes this haphazard combination of speech and some kind of sign system like SEE. So now imagine that we have this child watching a simultaneous combination of sign and speech in which neither is really presented in totality to the child. The child gets a messy mixture of input and can not really connect to the original message that has been delivered. The space around the signer, which is a trademark characteristic of ASL, is not used in communication with the child. The child cannot connect with the communicator in which rhythm, prosody and all of that are probably off. So now thinking about that, does the child get the rich input that they need? No they don’t. So that problematic input will definitely impact the ability to effectively acquire any kind of language. And then when you go and try testing that child’s English development, it will be skewed. If you want to really compare the two groups of deaf children with different communication experiences… Then we suggest that you look at these two groups. One of the groups is full of children who have only been exposed to the oral communication method. You can test that particular group. Then the second group of deaf children will be those that have been exposed to a mixture of oral communication and signed language. Understand that the signed language must be from good language models, ideally parents who are deaf and use it fluently. Now we’ve got those two groups – we can look at their English development skills. Those groups are now comparable. So you want to look at the oral development of those groups? These researchers have already done similar work. They looked at deaf parents who had deaf children who were implanted and received oral training along with fluent and natural signed input (like ASL). The researchers ensured that the children in the study actually received rich input – not impoverished input often found with children who received simultaneous communication. The researchers report that the deaf children in their studies are successful in spoken language development.

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