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Sign Language Is Best for Deaf Children Researchers dispute value of speech acquisition through technology

How to teach deaf children language has been a controversial issue, especially with the advent of modern hearing technology.

In an article published in the December 2016 Social Service Review, a group of researchers, most of whom have hearing loss themselves, says that a “speech only” approach using technology is hurting many deaf children by preventing them from learning language in their first critical years, resulting in impaired brain development and inflicting lasting harm on their cognitive and psychosocial functioning.

A better approach is for parents to begin teaching their deaf children sign language as early as possible, contend the authors of “Avoiding Linguistic Neglect of Deaf Children.”

Deafness is the most common birth defect in the United States. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1.4 of every 1,000 children are born with some type of hearing loss.

Children diagnosed with hearing loss typically receive hearing aids, cochlear implants, or both. Hearing aids amplify residual hearing, while cochlear implants bypass the ear altogether and deliver electronic impulses directly to the brain.

Deaf childMeanwhile, the authors say, promoters of the implants, including the makers and many doctors, discourage parents from teaching their children how to sign. Most parents have little experience with deafness—96 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents—and rely heavily on this guidance.

The problem is that the technology often doesn’t work very well. Learning to use cochlear implants is difficult. The authors point to a study that looked at more than 20,000 deaf children who received implants since 2000, and found that 47 percent had stopped using the devices altogether.

For this reason, the authors say, counting on a deaf child to communicate using spoken language alone is a huge gamble: “Many deaf children who are raised using only spoken language do not receive enough access to auditory information to develop language.” The authors call this “linguistic neglect,” and compare it to other kinds of maltreatment.

Indeed, research has shown that children need language to flourish. Language acquisition promotes cognitive development, psychological well-being, and social bonds. When children don’t get adequate exposure to language, their brains don’t develop properly. They become socially and emotionally isolated. And they become vulnerable to other kinds of abuse as well.

Teaching children to sign isn’t easy: the parents have to learn the language, too. But the authors say it’s a more reliable way to introduce deaf children to language, and to ensure that they receive the cognitive and other benefits of language acquisition. Research shows that children who learn to sign early do better across a range of measures, including academic achievement, than children who don’t. It also suggests that children who begin to learn sign language at birth have more success learning to use cochlear implants to access speech.

The authors say social workers can play a “key role in addressing the problem of linguistic neglect.” This is because of their involvement in promoting child welfare, but also because they are in a position to see the consequences of linguistic neglect in children. The authors say social workers can do more to inform themselves about the problem, take measures to educate the public, and promote standards of language acquisition for deaf children that prevent linguistic neglect.

"We’re hoping that social workers speak up,” says Donna Jo Napoli, Professor of Linguistics at Swarthmore College and one of the authors.

Humphries, Tom; Kushalnagar, Poorna; Mathur, Guarav; Napoli, Donna Jo; Padden, Carol; Rathman, Christian; and Smith, Scott. “Avoiding Linguistic Neglect of Deaf Children.” Social Service Review, 90 (4): 589-619.