When a child is born, his brain is a wondrous organ, primed to learn language and make sense of the world. Hearing or deaf, children are born with an auditory cortex and language centers in the brain. They are sponges, soaking up experiences and language input.
Adults are a different story. Past puberty, language acquisition becomes an infinitely more difficult task (see Newport, 1990). Add to that the difficulty of learning not only another language, but another MODE of communication (oral vs. manual), and you’re up against a tough challenge. When learning American Sign Language, parents are not only taking on the job of learning another language system, but also another way of communicating. While an English speaker learning German may have trouble with the different syntax (word order and sentence structure), the basic features of the language, like adding or changing sounds to indicate morphological shift (see more on morphemes HERE), will, literally, “sound” familiar. Not so with ASL, where the grammar is facial and spatial in nature. This is a challenge indeed!
When parents discover that their child has a hearing loss, and decided to pursue sign language as a means of communication, they are facing a tremendous uphill battle. Their child is perfectly primed for language acquisition. They are not. If the child is fortunate to be in an educational placement with plenty of exposure to full, complete ASL models, he will rapidly begin to acquire the language and, soon, outpace his parents. This is a recipe for disaster. Children learn new words, grammatical structures, idioms, and expressions from hearing the advanced language of their parents and caregivers. We often encourage parents to talk just one or two notches above their child’s current skill level to help him make that next developmental leap. If parents are learning sign along with, and often at a slower pace than, their children, how can they provide this kind of enriched language experience? In fact, the deaf children who do best with sign language are those who have signing Deaf parents who are able to provide them a full, complete language model in ASL (see Courtin, 2000). In the same way, hearing parents of deaf children are able to provide them a full, complete language model in the oral language(s) of their homes — and this accounts for the greater than 90% of all children with hearing loss who are born to hearing parents.
This can lead to a troubling dynamic. As one mother, in a video promoting the use of ASL with children with hearing loss, says, “And so, my son, who is now in first grade… is becoming, now, a kind of teacher to us” (this film is readily available online and was produced in part by California State University-Northridge). How can you stretch your child’s skills if he is the one teaching you new words? How do you have deep, meaningful conversations about family values, traditions, ethics, if you rely on a child to teach you the words for them? I recently read a post by a mother of a deaf preteen who wrote requesting a link to a video to explain the menstrual cycle in ASL for her daughter. She didn’t have the words and concepts to explain puberty to her daughter by herself. How is that healthy for the child or her relationship with her mother?
There are many justifiable reasons why deaf adults of years past may feel resentful toward their parents, and I often suspect that the inability of parents’ signing skills to meet the conversational demands of their children is high on that list. In the 2007-2008 Regional and National Summary from the Gallaudet Research Institute (the last year for which data was available), 46.3% of children surveyed communicated in either speech+sign or sign language only, yet 71% of children surveyed lived in homes where “family members do not regularly sign.” Sure, some of these homes were places where the 52% of students surveyed who are oral lived… but this does not account for all of the signing children. Some of them, it seems, go home to places where they are not given access to language in a mode that they understand. And this is just immediate families or the family members that live in-home with the child. What about extended family relationships and the rich transmission of culture and heritage from grandparents and elder relatives to children? Will they attain sign language fluency to a level that allows them to converse with a grandchild, especially if they only see each other once or twice a year? In Warren Estabrooks’s presentation, he told a touching story of one mother’s choice of a listening and spoken language approach for her daughter when she realized, “I didn’t want her to talk so much for me, but so that she could talk to my mom and dad, her grandparents.”