09 January 2012

ASL In a Bilingual Age: The Bilingualism/Biculturalism Debate

Due to globalization and an interdependent world economy system bilingualism has, of late, become a hot-button issue. Cultures, languages and people are mixing with increasing speed and frequency; the result is that in America and across the globe bilingualism has become an important tool and, in the field of education, a challenging issue to broach.  As Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary: Bilingualism n: "The ability to speak two languages; the habitual use of two languages colloquially. Biculturalism n: "Having or combining two cultures," that is two sets of "distinctive ideas, customs, accepted social behaviours, products or ways of life."

Because educators are now serving a growing number of bilingual students, researchers have launched a series of studies on the cognitive processes of bilingual thinkers, with surprisingly positive results, with bilingualism providing improved control over executive function and even shielding against dementia. In 2009 Dr. Laura Pettito's fNIRS brain-mapping study showed that bilingual thinkers utilize a more varied range of brain tissue.  A study conducted by Concordia and York Universities in conjunction with the Universite de Provence last year showed that bilingual toddlers outperformed their monolingual counterparts in tasks requiring rapid changes of focus, as well as demonstrated greater cognitive flexibility.  The evidence for bilingual deaf children is no different.  Research shows that deaf kids who know both ASL and spoken English read better than those who only know one or the other.

This new scientific evidence brings into question some professionals' reservations against allowing deaf children to learn sign language.  In the past it was thought that if a deaf child learned to sign he or she would not learn spoken or written language, but now that these claims have been scientifically reversed, clinical recommendations need to be revised as well.  When you think about it, how does it make sense that communication could possibly prevent the development of more communication skills? Why should children be prevented from learning two languages when extraordinary cognitive and linguistic benefits are the only proven outcome?  Furthermore, on the basic level of human rights, imagine the outcry, the news videos-gone-viral if a teacher suddenly banned a Spanish-speaking student from learning, communicating or thinking in his or her native language. The media would perseverate, the ACLU would sue.  And yet this happens every day to deaf children in the US and throughout the world.

As a writer myself, I want to make it clear that I'm not trying to belittle the importance of a deaf person being able to communicate in the written or spoken language of his or her country (for my purposes here, English).  I am not suggesting that ASL is superior to English in any fundamental sense.  I am, however, advocating for bilingualism, and what is called in the Deaf community the Bilingual-Bicultural (Bi-Bi) model of education for deaf children.  ASL, as the only language a deaf person can access one-hundred percent provides the first mode through which to think and communicate, a way to understand the workings of language.  After a firm linguistic foundation is established, students can then learn written and spoken English with greater ease and effectiveness, without delay.  The goal of Bi-Bi is that the Deaf student would become equally fluent in both languages, and therefore be able to move fluidly between Deaf and hearing cultures.  Furthermore, the Bi-Bi model is not mutually exclusive with oral education; bilingual deaf children can use technology such as hearing aids and cochlear implants to help them hear and understand spoken language with greater ease, while also having full access to ASL at all times through the visual modality of sign.

If you are in the situation of choosing an educational plan for your child, consider the proven cognitive benefits of bilingualism, and the wise words of Deaf leader and advocate Frederick C. Schreiber-- "Ears are not important; it's what's between them that counts."


  1. So, how do you do it? How do you balance ASL with listening and spoken language? How do you ensure that they have access to both? How do you make sure that the auditory pathways don't convert to visual? How to you immerse a child in two totally different languages?

    1. Dear Miss Kat's Parents:
      It's a great question, and one that educators and parents alike often debate. In fact, we think it's such a good question that we'd love to write an upcoming post on the topic.
      Of course, on the most basic level, bilingualism is pretty common--many people are fluent in multiple languages. We have a few bi- and tri-lingual Deaf people writing for Redeafined, and we firmly believe that deafness is not preventative of linguistic excellency.
      We're looking forward to covering this topic in greater depth soon. Thanks for the suggestion, and for reading Redeafined.

    2. In the meantime, here's a great resource on how a child (or person) can hold two languages in his or her head (even languages with different modalities--visual and auditory) without detriment to either one. http://www.tlcdeaf.org/uploaded/About_Us_Section/ODYSSEY_SPR_2012_NussbaumScottSimms.pdf


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