Some learning methods that hearing people use

Some
people are born with the “Gift of Gab” while some people find it difficult to
develop and learn a language. Although spoken languages can be hard for anyone,
they are especially challenging for the deaf and Hard of Hearing (HOH)
community. In the United States, hearing people typically communicate using
English while deaf people communicate using signed or manual languages like
American Sign Language (ASL) or Pidgin Signed English (PSE). ASL is recognized
as a legitimate language. It has its own complex structure which includes
specific grammar, syntax, pragmatics, and semantics. PSE is a combination of
ASL and English commonly used by deaf people who learned English as their
native language but lost their hearing later in life. Understand that language,
speech, and communication are all completely different. “When speech
pathologists refer to the term speech they are referring to three
things: articulation/phonological skills, speech fluency and
voice. While speech involves the physical motor ability to talk, language
is a symbolic, rule governed system used to convey a message”
(What Is the Difference Between
Speech and Language?). Communication is how we convey the meaning of a message.
A shared language or speech is not required to communicate. A simple shrug of
the shoulders conveys the meaning “I don’t know” without using any speech at
all. Some people communicate quite well without speaking, using only gestures and
facial expressions.  

            The general debate about language is
how it is acquired.  How do people learn
words and languages? What is the best method for acquiring language? Why is one
method for learning language better than the other? These questions are the
basis for the great language debate between hearing and deaf/HOH people. It
usually starts as soon as a baby is born and continues throughout their early
education years. There is a critical timespan in a child’s early life in which
they develop and learn their native language. How children develop and acquire their
language is very fluid and this development involves their learning environment
and familial influences. The learning methods that hearing people use to
acquire language are different than those of deaf or HOH people. Learning how
to speak also uses many different methods. The different modalities of
language and speech acquisition and their correlation to cognitive development
and social behaviors need to be discussed, researched, and highlighted from the
perspectives of those who have intact hearing, those who are deaf, and those
who are HOH. Each of these groups have unique linguistic needs and should be
allowed to follow different paths to establish the form of communication that
best suits them and their families.  

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            When a typical hearing child has
regular exposure to spoken language they usually do not have difficulties in
acquiring their native or first language. Even before a baby can speak, their
language and speech development are under way. “Early adult-infant interactions
in the forms of facial expressions, vocalizations, and physical contact trigger
a domino effect of speech and language acquisition and progression” (Klarowska).
Between the ages of 0-6 months, a baby will be able to recognize familiar
voices, sounds, and tones. A stranger’s voice may agitate a baby while its own
mother’s voice will instantly calm them. If the doorbell rings every day at
1:00, when the postman delivers the mail, it may initially startle a new baby.
After a few times, the baby will not even acknowledge the doorbell ringing. The
baby becomes used to that tone and just ignores the interruption. Babies at
this developmental stage can also communicate in their own unique way. They
have particular cries and pitches in their voices that indicate a certain need.
Ask most mothers and they can identify what these different cries mean.
Sometimes it means they are hungry, sick, sleepy, or they just need to be held
and rocked. And thus, communication begins. From 7-12 months babies have
learned to babble and explore their voices, often squealing and stretching
their vocal chords. They know when they are being spoken to and recognize the
sound of their own name. Simple commands and the names of common objects are
easily understood. Within the first year babies tend to produce their first
words. During the child’s second and third years, they combine gestures with
their limited vocabulary to express themselves. “Although their spoken words
are limited to about 50-250 words, they have a receptive vocabulary of
approximately 500-900 words” (Klarowska).

            As hearing children are exposed to
more and more spoken language, they are quickly processing words and sounds and
learning how to develop their own speech. They start to use less physical
gestures and are able to put more words into sentence form. “The first 3 years
of life, when the brain is developing and maturing, is the most intensive
period for acquiring speech and language skills. These skills develop best in a
world that is rich with sounds, sights, and consistent exposure to the speech
and language of others” (Speech
and Language Developmental Milestones). If language deprivation
occurs in these first few critical years language fluency may never happen. In
addition, many cognitive and social skills will be delayed. Children’s brains
are rapidly growing at these young ages and have a certain plasticity to them.
They can learn new things, like language, that also help develop their
cognitive skills. Many of our senses are related to cognition and memory. These
senses are interdependent and rely heavily on the development of each other. If
there is a decline in one area there might be a decline in other areas as well.
A lack of language, speech, or communication can quickly change our brain’s
ability to work correctly. Numerous researchers have proven that poor communication
skills greatly effect a child’s social skills and their ability to function in
a typical society. “Successful social interaction calls for a higher order of
cognitive processing, called executive functioning, which has been
significantly positively associated with language ability” (Kushalnagar, et
al.). Communication is important by societal standards and people are often
shunned if they are not confident in their communication skills.

            In families with deaf parents who
give birth to hearing children, a form of language deprivation can happen as
well. These children are not exposed to spoken language by their parents as
they would be in a hearing household. “Spoken language is acquired
automatically. All Children (except children with serious learning
disabilities) naturally learn to speak the language of the community in which
they are brought up” (Valli, et al. p. 231). This is true of native signers as
well, whether they are hearing or deaf. Children of Deaf Adults (CODA’s) are
hearing but consider themselves culturally Deaf (a capital D is used in this
instance) and typically develop ASL as their native language. Many CODA’s say
they learned to understand the English language from watching TV as children.
By the time they start school, most are fluent in ASL and English. However,
some CODA’s are in need of regular speech therapy to help increase their
knowledge of English and its distinct pronunciations. A bi-lingual approach to
learning would be beneficial to these types of students. Teaching them English
using their native ASL can help strengthen their understanding of both
languages simultaneously.

            Deaf children with deaf parents
acquire language in the same way as hearing children. They observe, absorb, and
mimic their parents (or other adults/people in their learning environments). In
the first year, deaf children will learn to babble using their voices and their
hands, “signing” gibberish as they copy the hand movements they have seen.
Imitating facial expressions is expected in typical first-year development.  By the second year deaf children will recognize
and produce many signs. Signs like eat, milk, play, and the names of their
family members are common. They will also develop the ability to combine two-three
sign/word concepts such as “My toy!” and “Want more milk”. As they gain more
vocabulary heading into their third year, they will also learn more grammatical
rules involved in ASL. Recognizing semantic relationships such as synonyms and
antonyms is common at this age. Deaf children can identify and use directional
agreement in signed concepts such as “Give-to-you” (hands moving towards
someone else) and “Give-to-me” (hands moving towards the signer). At this stage
they use their facial grammar and expressions, also known as non-manual
markers, which are important to their language development because, so much is
conveyed with the face while signing. Furrowing or raising the eyebrows can
express deep concern or demonstrate all the typical “WH” question words (who,
what, when, where, and why). Overall, hearing and deaf children follow a
similar language track in those first few critical years when they are
developing their native language. Just as important as language acquisition,
deaf children of deaf parents also learn cultural social skills. Deaf people
are intensely social and often spend copious amounts of time visiting with
friends and family. This social interaction aids in language growth and
cognitive development.

            As deaf children become school-aged,
parents are met with the challenge of how to manage their child’s education.
Should they attend a deaf institution or be mainstreamed into their local
public school? There are pros and cons to each scenario. Deaf institutions are
only attended by deaf or HOH students and are taught by educators who use
signed languages. This means the students have true access to a legitimate
education being taught in their native language. Unfortunately, there are not
many deaf schools in the country and the closest one may be hundreds of miles
away. Parents do not want to be separated from their young children for long
periods of time and uprooting or moving an entire family across the state to
the nearest deaf institution can be a financial hardship. According to
Gallaudet University, the only deaf
University in the United States, “there are only about 100 K-12 deaf schools in
the United States” (Schools
and Programs for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students in the U.S.).
That amounts to approximately one day school and one residential school per
state. Compared to mainstream elementary schools (up to grade six) that is an
inconsiderable amount. “According to the National Center for Educational
Statistics, there were about 90,000 elementary schools operating in the
United States between 2013 and 2014; both private and
public” (Jaaskelainen).
This averages out to about 1,800 mainstream elementary schools per state. Without
having reasonable access to a deaf institute, parents must decide if they want
to send their child away to a boarding school for the deaf or send them to a
mainstream school in their local community. The mainstream schools are any
typical elementary school in their neighborhood. The deaf student would then be
placed into a classroom with all hearing students and a teacher that only
speaks and teaches in English. An educational interpreter who is skilled in ASL
would accompany the deaf student to all their classes and provide them access
to all communication from staff members, educators, and other students. While
it seems like a plausible educational plan to integrate the child into a
mainstream school, it is still deficient in many areas for the deaf student.

            To understand how the student feels,
imagine being in a classroom where the instructor is teaching in a foreign
language. Even with an interpreter, this can make the student feel isolated.
Although, being the only deaf student in a mainstream school is not unusual it can
limit the social interactions. Other young children do not always know how or
want to communicate in a mode that is unfamiliar to them. Unfortunately, this
can also be the case with educators and staff that are uncomfortable interacting
with deaf students who communicate using an interpreter. Deaf children are
keenly aware of others’ body language and they know when someone is
uncomfortable around them. If that uncomfortable behavior continues without
change, the deaf child will stop investing their time in that person even if it
is their teacher. All educators and school staff could benefit from sensitivity
training for children with special needs. Workshops and classes that break down
the Americans with Disabilities Act into more understandable sections are also
beneficial and explain how to create learning environments that provide equal
access for all their students regardless of their abilities.

            Some hearing people view deafness as
a physical impairment while deaf people see it as a valued part of their
cultural identity. Deaf people do not feel like they are impaired in any way.
“The vast majority of deaf infants (approximately 96%) are born to hearing parents,
who often know very little about sign languages or Deaf communities” (Humphries,
et al.). Hearing parents expect their new born babies to be hearing just like
them, so they are naturally ill-prepared to be language models for their deaf
children. It takes time to learn a new language and the parents would typically
be learning sign language with their
child instead of teaching it to them.
“About 95% of the deaf population has two hearing parents and 88% of those
parents do not know sign language” (Buie and Shaw). It is all-too-common for
hearing parents of deaf children to never learn sign language. This leaves the
child feeling isolated with little access to language, diminished cognitive
development, and a future without much academic success. Having a common
language between parent and child is imperative to the child’s success.

            Hard of hearing children are stuck
in the middle of the hearing spectrum. They are not fully deaf, nor are they
fully hearing. Many HOH children are misdiagnosed with learning disorders
because they display a delay in speech production. The amount of hearing they
have is sufficient enough to pass a tonal hearing test but the actual clarity
of what they are hearing is below the normal hearing ranges. Often, they can
understand speech if they are spoken to face-to-face but if someone speaks to
them with their back turned it makes it impossible to understand. They depend
on seeing the facial expressions, mouth movements, and lip shapes of the
speaker for better comprehension. HOH students can benefit from a bi-lingual approach
to education. Using their residual hearing to master English and simultaneously
learning ASL will give them a complete grasp on multiple forms of
communication. The Alexander Graham Bell Academy for Listening and Spoken
Language disagrees with this assertion. “AG Bell serves as a resource and
advocate for those parents and individuals who choose to pursue the option and
outcome of spoken language. We provide support and resources with regard to
listening and talking” (Position Statement: Spoken Language). AG Bell Stresses
that learning a signed language will hinder the development of the child’s
spoken English. Sadly, many parents of deaf and HOH children trying to
circumvent their child’s deafness will agree with this train of thought,
causing delayed language acquisition and future harm to their child.

            No two children are born the same
and they all have different needs from the minute they come into this world.
Being flexible in how those needs are fulfilled is detrimental to the quality of
the child’s life and health. There is no “best method” when it comes to how
children acquire their native languages but there are many different paths to choose
from. Hearing students would not learn the best if they were only taught in
sign language. Deaf and HO students would not learn the best if they were only
taught in spoken English. Assistive listening devices like cochlear implants or
hearing aids can increase the levels of hearing in some children allowing them to
produce some form of spoken language. For some students, utilizing speech
therapy to develop their voice can also be beneficial before they begin school.
The ability to use all or some of these modes for acquiring language will give the
child a better chance at having full access to communication in whatever form is
best for them. All children have a right to language whether it is signed or spoken.
Deaf and HOH children using a bi-lingual approach to communication, ASL and English,
will have a better opportunity to fully participate in life.