There is "evidence that deaf children benefit from early exposure to sign language points to the need for in-depth sign language training for parents and other caregivers, with special attention to underserved populations such as those in rural areas," (Marschuck 2001 p 9). Parents should not rely on external schools at later developmental stages, when the damage to the child's cognitive and linguistic abilities could have already been done.
Chomsky's Developmental Theory
In order to better understand how this issue is such a problem for the population of deaf children born to hearing parents, it is important to explore relevant theoretical models of language acquisition. According to Noam Chomsky's theory of language development, children have an innate ability to learn any form of human communication
(Macaulay 2006). We as human beings are essentially hard-wired to learn language skills and concepts. Here, the research states that "human beings are born with an innate knowledge of how language is structured and use this innate knowledge to work out how to acquire competence in the language to which they are exposed," (Macaulay 2006 p 54). Infants show similar language acquisition abilities despite cultural or regional differences because of the Language Acquisition Device (LAD) that Chomsky believed help facilitate language learning. Children do not learn language simply through imitation, but through a more complex process that is innately conducted cognitively. Thus, language acquisition is rapid because of these innate structures already in place (Macaulay 2006). Chomsky's theory takes an interesting twist when applied to children of deaf populations. One study (Goldin-Meadow & Mylander 1998), explored the language structures used by deaf children in the United States and in China. What the research discovered was that the compilation of language structures in hand-made gestures was incredibly similar, despite vast cultural and language differences. According to this study, "These striking similarities offer critical empirical input towards resolving the ongoing debate about the innateness of language in human infants," (Goldin-Meadow & Mylander 1998 p 279). This essentially serves as a testament to Chomsky's belief that children hold an innate ability to learn language in specific schemas, and that this ability transcends cultural differences (Spencer & Marschuck 2006). In fact, one of the greatest signs of hearing loss is when children do not talk at the level appropriate to their developmental stage (Mayberry 2002).
ASL (American Language) History and Structure
The most commonly used sign language in the English speaking world is American Sign Language (ASL). Essentially, the practice began with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet in the early nineteenth century. He brought European notions of sign language home to the United States after traveling abroad. It quickly found success in a changing United States that was taking a different approach to deaf education. As it is practiced today, it is a manual language, rather than relying on sounds as the primary vehicle for communication (Marschuck 2001). This means it includes not only hand gestures, but mouthing and other facial expressions as well. It is complex and relies on grammatical and semantic structures, just as any other language would.
Action Taken vs. Untaken
The fact that children need to be exposed to language early on then creates a situation where deaf children can easily acquire knowledge of sign language during the crucial developmental stages where language acquisition is most important; "The primary consequence of childhood deafness is that it blocks the development of spoken language -- both acts of speaking and comprehending," (Mayberry 2002 p 71). The tendency for deaf children to not be exposed to sign language early on fails to build upon their natural LADs, thus creating serious implications later in life in regards to cognitive and social development. Deaf children can start to learn sign language as early as 4 months. It is important to help deaf infants embody their developmental stage's capacity to learn linguistic skills. Here, the research posits that "The most critical language learning occurs in a very short window of time, and research has shown repeatedly that lack of full exposure to language (spoken or otherwise) in this critical period can have devastating and permanent effects," (Malloy 2003 p 2). Therefore, it is important that deaf infants still be exposed to linguistic learning, even if it is through sign language.
America's View of the Deaf
Many deaf children find themselves at a disadvantage later on in life because they were not exposed to language learning at the crucial developmental stages. Therefore, the deaf community as a whole continues to fight a majority stereotype that deafness is associated with dependence on others that they are not able to care for themselves once they reach adulthood. This is then impacting how educational programs approach the teaching and facilitation of language development in regards to how they handle deaf populations. According to the research, "These researchers and educators have assumed (perhaps unconsciously) that their own ways were normal, natural, and right: therefore deaf children must be abnormal, unnatural, and wrong. This presumption of the superiority of one's own culture is characteristic of most hearing people involved in the education of deaf children," (Nover 1993 p 177). Unfortunately, this stereotype often comes out of exposure to deaf children who are suffering from a lack of early language development. Being denied language learning at crucial developmental stages can have permanent impacts of the child's cognitive and social capabilities. Here, the research suggests that "it was confirmed that children with these difficulties have problems with academics, and are more likely to have self-esteem and behavioral issues," (Malloy 2003 p 3). Many children have difficulties reading and writing at their appropriate age levels (Mayberry 2002). Often times, this is attributed to their late start in learning language abilities because of the dependence of hearing parents on later schools and facilities at a time which misses the child's appropriate developmental stage for language acquisition.
The research actually shows that children with deafness have trouble compiling their own thoughts in meaningful ways because their lack of linguistic knowledge (Mayberry 2002). This creates a situation where cognitive development can be impaired if the child is not exposed to other forms of language learning early on in appropriate developmental stages.
Deaf View of the Deaf Population
Exploring the difficulties faced by deaf children shows the clear need for adaptations to modern policies regarding how educational and parental strategies approach learning within the specific context. Research findings on the subject are often contradictory and inconclusive (Marschuck 2001). Therefore, it is crucial for modern discourse to apply more strategies to focus on how early exposure to sign language can have positive impacts on the cognitive and social well-being of deaf children. More research is needed in order to secure a foundation for future policy that encourages hearing parents to learn sign language and expose their deaf children to it as early as possible.
Deaf organizations focus on changing that stereotype in order to provide a better learning environment for deaf children. Many believe that with the proper training and education, deaf individuals can live independent and happy lives, "while encouraging children to learn about both deaf and hearing cultures," (Marschuck 2001 p 52). It is clear that the lack of language learning at crucial stages in development create a weakness within the deaf community. It creates a situation where many within the deaf community are at a great disadvantage compared to their hearing counterparts. After all, "Linguistic proficiency has been called a central requirement for human life," including the deaf population (Malloy 2003 p 2). By exposing deaf children to greater language builders, the deaf community can better fight the stereotype that is held by the hearing majority.
Anisfield, Moshe. (1985). Language Development from Birth to Three. Psychology Press.
Goldin-Meadow, Susan & Mylander, Carolyn. (1998). Spontaneous sign systems created by deaf children in two cultures. Nature, 391(15), 279-282.
Macaulay, Ronald K.S. (2006). The Social Art: Language and Its Uses. Oxford University Press.
Malloy, Tiara V. (2003). Sign language use for deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing babies: The evidence supports it. American Society for Deaf Children. Web. http://www.deafchildren.org/resources/49_Sign%20Language%20Use.pdf
Marschuck, Marc. (2001). Language Development in Children Who Are Deaf: A Research Synthesis. National Technical Institute for the Deaf. Web. http://www.projectforum.org/docs/language_development.pdf
Mayberry, Rachel I. (2002). Cognitive development in deaf children: The interface of language and perception in neuropsychology. Handbook of Neuropsychology, 8(2), 71-107.
Nover, Stephen M., & Moll, Luis. (1993). Cultural mediation of deaf cognition. Post Milan ASL & English Literacy: Issues, Trends to Research. P 177-193. Web. http://www.seattlecentral.edu/faculty/cvince/ASL125/125_cultural_mediation_of_deaf_cogni.htm
Salkind, Niel J. (2004). An Introduction to Theories of Human Development. SAGE Publications.
Spencer, Patricia Elizabeth & Marschuck, Marc. (2006). Advances in the Spoken Language Development…