Sign language was essential for the empowerment of deaf people. We must not deprive deaf children of the opportunity to learn this complete and rich language. The fact that some experts and media are now questioning this bilingualism is a threat to the full life of young deaf people.
The fact that deaf people has become increasingly visible in recent decades. We no longer look up to the deaf in the media, in cinema films or from sign language interpreters in TV programs. American sign-language courses are popular, the sign language interpreting sign language course too. Undoubtedly, this increased visibility has to do with the acceptance and recognition of sign language as a real language, a condition for and at the same time a result of the emancipation of deaf people. They form a cultural community and are proud of their language. But as serious attention from the hearing world to sign language and sign language users grows, the importance of sign language in the education of young deaf children is now being questioned by some experts. These children, of whom more than 90 percent of the youngest generation has an electronic inner ear prosthesis, would no longer benefit from sign language. In fact, using sign language would get in the way of them acquiring the spoken language.
Sign language under scientific fire
Scientific publications to this effect raise many critical questions in linguists and educators circles about the methodology and conclusions of the research. But while discussions about this are in full swing in the professional literature, reports are now appearing in the media with a certain purport: the role of sign language in the lives of young deaf children seems to have been played out.
Why is sign language criticism so tempting?
The criticism of this and other research is fundamental: the studies are based on small numbers of children taught in different settings. Moreover, it is based on assumptions (for example, about bilingualism), the validity of which is under discussion. However, here it is not so much about the ins and outs of the scientific commentary. The conclusions are usually presented by the researchers themselves as more questions to be investigated than as hard-and-fast truths. We can, however, conclude that statements with such far-reaching consequences for the American deaf community and its language rest on a very soft basis. What makes the idea that sign language is ‘no longer necessary’ for the group of young deaf children so tempting?
Sign language would not be a full-fledged language
It was seen as an important achievement that deaf children could learn and communicate in their own natural language. This was good for their cognitive and social-emotional development, as well as for their ability to identify with deaf adults. Almost always (in 95 percent of the cases) deaf children have hearing parents and therefore usually have no ties with the deaf community.
The importance of learning sign language as early as possible was widely acknowledged and hearing parents and teachers from deaf education were offered sign language courses. At the same time, learning spoken and written American naturally remained an important objective in education for the deaf.
Knowing that sign languages are real languages enabled a new vision of learning that spoken language. Research into bilingualism in spoken languages had made it clear that mastering a ‘first’ language was necessary to achieve a good acquisition of a second language. From this model, the idea of bilingual education for the deaf was developed, in which sign language was taught as the first language and the spoken language as the second, ‘foreign’ language.