21 June 2012

Sign Language and the Importance of Early Language Learning for All Children: An Interview with Rachel Coleman

Rachel Coleman demonstrates the sign for "smart" in a
Signing Time video clip.
Rachel Coleman, co-founder of Signing Time and mother of a daughter who is Deaf and has a cochlear implant, sounds off about technology, bilingualism, and why sign language is important for everybody.

Redeafined: Tell us a bit about Signing Time. What is it and why did it start?
Rachel ColemanSigning Time is an American Sign Language and English Vocabulary Building Series for Children.  In addition to learning this vast vocabulary, children are learning the concepts needed for, and taught in, preschool: colors, family members, feelings, manners, healthy habits, fruits and vegetables, etc. are all covered in Signing Time. Many children learn all of this vocabulary and the correlating concepts before they are able to speak. 

R:Can you talk a little bit about the experience of finding out your daughter was deaf, and what you feel about her deafness now?
RCI was shocked and surprised to find out that Leah was deaf. She was 14-months old before we got the diagnosis that she had a severe-profound bilateral hearing loss.  I am a musician and have grown up in a family of musicians, and not knowing anything about deafness, I was left believing that there was no way for music to be a part of or lives.  Once I dealt with that aspect, we moved on to learning American Sign Language and giving as much information as we could to Leah through signs.  We definitely went through a period of mourning, but looking back I can see how much of what we were sad about was entirely made up.  We really had no idea how wonderful our life could be or how many amazing people we would meet because of Leah's deafness. It's been an unexpected adventure. 
I was wrong about music too, obviously Signing Time is full of music.  Plus, Leah loves music and is a drummer.  Here is her drum recital from last year.

R: Do you consider sign language and cochlear implants mutually exclusive? Judging from your experience with your daughter and contact with other deaf children, what is the optimal communication method for deaf kids? 
RC: Every child should sign.  In my experience it is the best way to start communicating with your infant or toddler.  When I say "every child" I mean it, I am not just speaking about deaf children.

R: You mentioned on your blog that when Leah was implanted your ENT told you to stop signing with her. Is that something that happens a lot? Why do you think a doctor would suggest that?
RC: I have no idea what happens to most other people in the ENT's office, but yes, we were advised (strongly) to stop signing with Leah immediately after she came out of surgery, which I saw as a completely ridiculous request.  How would you like it if you had just undergone major surgery, you wake up, and everyone you know and love refused to communicate with you.  I told him I considered that child abuse and that we would continue to sign with Leah even after she had healed, and after her processor had been mapped and turn on.  I mean, how else could we explain everything new that she was going to experience?  We could only explain it through signs, she had never heard anything that was helpful or useful and she didn't know how to speak or decipher spoken English. She only knew English through reading and writing it.  [Redeafined note: Leah, by the way, read above grade level before she was implanted. Read more about the importance of bilingualism with respect to deaf children's reading levels here.]

R: Why do you think people continue to dismiss sign language education for deaf children while simultaneously supporting the use of sign for hearing babies?
RC: I think we are still dealing with the impact of the unfounded belief that signing will delay speech.  It is believable, but only if you never take the time to think about it.  Every young child begins communicating with signs; yes, all of them.  They wave "bye-bye" and no one worries that they will never say it.  They lift their arms up to ask to be picked up, and parents don't ignore the request because of the fear that if they reinforce such gestures their child's speech will be delayed.  Children point to what they want in the pantry, because they know it is the only way they have to get you, the adult, to understand their wants and needs. Those are all signs.  
Signing does not delay speech, not even for a deaf child.  Deafness and hearing loss DO delay speech.  Speech delays definitely delay speech.  Apraxia, Down syndrome, and autism all can delay speech.  It is not the signing that delays speech; actually by most accounts you will find that children who sign speak earlier, and their communication is rich and complete and a very early age.  In my decade of experience with young children signing I have seen that young signers throw fewer tantrums because they don't have to get upset that no one understands their wants. They can clearly communicate those wants through signing and their caregivers understand their signs. 
Communication does not delay communication. There are proven benefits to learning a second language and American Sign Language is a second language.  people are impressed when a young child can speak English and French, or English and Spanish, the parents aren't told that a child's mind is simply incapable of learning two languages and that it might be detrimental. The whole idea that signing delays speech is silly and unfounded.  When families tell me that they have a speech therapist who tells them not to sign or warns them about delaying their child's speech with signing, I tell them to find a new speech therapist, one who actually is up to date on current information.

R: Do you have any recommended reading or scientific data related to bilingualism and the use of sign language with young children?

To check out Signing Time's videos visit their website http://www.signingtime.com/.  To read more about Rachel's experience with raising her daughter and choosing cochlear implantation and bilingualism, visit her My Two Cents: Cochlear Implants post. 
We'll leave you with a quote from her blog: "Technology frequently changes and even fails. Cochlear implants can be rejected by the recipient. The implant may fail or simply never work at all. Batteries die and parts break. Programming can accidentally get erased. Sign language will never fail, the batteries will not die, you can use it while swimming, you never have to “turn it on” or struggle to locate it in the middle of the night. Sign language can get soaking wet and it’s always at your fingertips.
Leah will always be deaf. Her first language is American Sign Language. She has learned English as a second language through reading and writing. With her cochlear implant, Leah has learned how to pronounce words and to understand English when it is spoken to her. She is a child who has it all.
If you are considering implanting your deaf child, my recommendation is this – do not put all of your eggs in one basket. Give your child EVERY opportunity to communicate. Give them many tools! Cochlear implants do not work for all children, implants are not always successful and should not be portrayed as a “cure” for deafness. Similarly, hearing aids do not work for all children, they are not always successful and should not be portrayed as a “cure” for deafness. You might want to consider that deafness doesn’t need a cure." Thanks, Rachel!

To read more about the importance of ASL-English bilingualism for all deaf kids, check out our guest posts on Lingua Greca's Adventures in Freelance Translation blog and on the Language on the Move site.


  1. My children and I are longtime Signing Time fans. Thank you for the excellent interview!


  2. I think speaking a language is as important as writing it, or in whatever you do, do your best. Although it may take time to perfect speaking English, it is best to try it without the "bahala na" way of thinking.

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  3. We agree that speech can be an important mode of communication. We simply advocate for a bilingual-bimodal method of teaching, so that deaf children fully acquire a signed first language (as hearing children do naturally through their parents (and deaf children do naturally if they happen to have deaf parents)) which can then be used in teaching and acquiring subsequent languages. Since sign language is the only language a deaf child can access 100%, 100% of the time (even with the best assistive technology), it makes sense for a deaf child to learn sign language first, to develop a strong cognitive and linguistic base as early as possible on which to build. Sidebar: Both deaf and hearing children can actually utilize signed language earlier than they can spoken language (due to vocal cord development, mainly). The popularity of baby sign language has exploded of late, while, simultaneously, deaf children are barred from communicating in the way that is most natural to them--an irony for the ages.
    Thanks for reading!

  4.  I appreciate language learning experiences. The fact that i read so much, and so profoundly, demonstrates the high level of your English. 

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  5. I would have benefited immensely from having this as I entered college--far more useful, in fact, than nearly half the "core" curriculum texts they had as required reading

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