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Educating Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing:
The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
ERIC EC Digest #E553
Authors: Sharon and Keith Baker
During the last two decades bilingual-bicultural education
programs (programs which recognize that children may come
from a different culture and speak a different language in the
home than in the school) have flourished in the United States as
the ethnic composition of children attending public schools has
become more diverse. In the late 1980's discussion of bilingual-bicultural education for children who are Deaf brought about new
theories. (A capital D is used by bilingual-bicultural programs to
identify deafness as a cultural, rather than a medical, issue.
According to Schirmer (1994) "the impetus for implementing
bilingual-bicultural programs for children who are deaf comes
from two sources: (1) The Deaf community, who advocate for the right to pass on their language and culture to succeeding
generations; (2) the overall disappointing achievement of
youngsters who are deaf. (p. 98) Although small gains have
been made in the levels of reading achieved by the average child
who is deaf, overall achievement remains considerably lower
compared to their hearing peers despite ardent attempts to teach
Deaf children through Total Communication (see ERIC EC Digest
E559) and oral approaches (see ERIC EC Digest E551).
Additional impetus for bilingual-bicultural programs comes
from Sweden, where, in 1981, after years of grassroots activism
by Deaf adults and parents of children who are Deaf, the
Swedish Parliament passed a law stating that people who are
Deaf need to be bilingual in order to function successfully in the
family, school, and society (Mahshie, 1995).
What Does it Mean to Be Bilingual-Bicultural?
"A person who is bicultural can move freely within and
between two different cultures. Biculturalism implies an
understanding of the mores, customs, practices, and
expectations of members of a cultural group and the ability to
adapt to their expectations" (Finnegan, 1992, p.1). Bilingualism
involves the ability to use two different languages successfully.
Some individuals may be stronger in one language, some in the
other, some may blend the two languages into a pidgin (Maxwell,
1991). Individuals who are Deaf are considered bilingual if they
are able to communicate effectively in both American Sign
Language (ASL) and English or the spoken language of their
country. They are considered bicultural if they are capable of
functioning in both the Deaf community and the majority culture.
Although there is no standardized formula defining bilingual-bicultural programs, they are founded on a common set of
principles. A basic premise of bilingual-bicultural education is
that all children should develop communicative competency.
This is a challenge because more than 90 percent of children
who are Deaf have hearing parents or caregivers who must learn
ASL as a second language.
Education programs that follow the bilingual-bicultural
philosophy work with parents/caregivers to help them realize the
special linguistic, educational, and social needs of their child(ren)
who are Deaf and to help them realize the importance of early
language acquisition. Deaf children who develop language late
are less proficient than those who develop an early first language
(Newport & Sapulla, 1987). Helen Neville's research at the Salk
Institute's Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience also shows that
children must learn a language during their first five years or so,
before the brain's neural connections are locked in place, or risk
permanent linguistic impairment (Wolkomir, 1992). "What suffers
is the ability to learn grammar. As children mature, their brain
organization becomes increasingly rigid. By puberty, it is largely
complete. This spells trouble because most deaf youngsters
learn language late; their parents are hearing and do not know
ASL, and the children have little or no contact with deaf people
when young." (p. 36)
Since it is the grammar of languages that distinguishes them
most significantly from one another (most spoken languages
have similar pragmatic or social functions and similar sound
systems), the early assault on the ability to learn grammar makes
the development of a sound language system even more
Bilingual-bicultural programs differ from other programs most
notably by their approach to first language acquisition. While
bilingual-bicultural programs have respect for both ASL and
English, these programs advocate for ASL to be the first
language of children who are deaf. "Research has shown that
effective language has to be fast and clear. ASL is an efficient
language for visual learning and is easier for Deaf children to
acquire as a first language than any form of English" (Finnegan,
1992, p. 7). Johnson, Liddell, Ertling (1989) stated that ASL is
the language choice of adults who are deaf, and it offers access
to the school curriculum and other world knowledge. A solid
foundation in a first language leads to better English
performance over time, and skills transfer from one language to
Teaching ASL as the first language for Deaf children has
additional benefits. ASL is the language of Deaf people
throughout the United States. Proficiency in ASL automatically
allows membership in the Deaf community and in cultural events
that occur in communities where Deaf people live. This
membership is vital to Deaf children because it promotes a
healthy view of who they are as human beings and increases
self-esteem and confidence in their abilities to interact in a wide
array of situations.
The bilingual-bicultural approach recognizes that ASL and
English are two distinct languages in the same way that, for
example, French and German are distinct languages. ASL is a
complete language with its own grammar, syntax, and rules for
interaction. Signing ASL and speaking English cannot be
performed simultaneously with a great degree of success;
therefore, when signing ASL one should not attempt to speak
English. Speaking English when signing deteriorates the visual
signal resulting in an inferior production of signs as well as
inferior use of spoken English. The goal is clear and proficient
production of ASL.
Proponents of the bilingual-bicultural approach believe that
Deaf children are not deficient. Instead of being auditory
learners, they are visual learners. Deaf children do not need
remedial teaching strategies because the bilingual-bicultural
program provides a unique visual learning environment in which
their linguistic, cultural, and social needs are met. Deaf teachers,
administrators, and support staff are considered valuable
components of the bilingual-bicultural program. The bilingual-bicultural approach does not support mainstreaming Deaf
children in regular education programs. Many Deaf adults have
shared their stories of isolation and academic deprivation while
attending schools for children who can hear. The bilingual-bicultural
approach holds that cognitive, linguistic, and social
competence are best achieved in environments that provide full
communicative access to the curriculum.
Who Can Choose a Bilingual-Bicultural Option?
Proponents of the bilingual-bicultural option feel that all
children, no matter what their degree of hearing loss, would
benefit from a bilingual-bicultural option. However, it is most
likely that these programs will exist separate from the
mainstream education agencies and buildings. Some may be
residential, some may be day schools. Parents or caregivers who
feel that this approach is appropriate for their child should call the
residential school for Deaf children in their home state. Although
a growing number of schools for children who are deaf have
adopted bilingual-bicultural programming, families in rural areas
may not have access to this approach.
What Are the Benefits of a Bilingual-Bicultural Option?
There are several benefits of bilingual-bicultural education.
Early access to comprehensible language fosters early cognitive
development which, in turn, promotes increased literacy and
greater academic achievement. Students who attend bilingual-bicultural programs develop functional skills in two languages.
The emphasis on early language acquisition and establishing a
first language (ASL) provides a base upon which English is
subsequently taught. Students in bilingual-bicultural programs
have increased self-esteem and confidence due to the healthy
view of Deaf children, acceptance of who they are as human
beings, and increased confidence to function in bilingual-bicultural environments.
What Are the Limitations of a Bilingual-Bicultural Option?
Bilingual-bicultural programs in the United States are still
relatively new. Limited data are available regarding students'
achievement in these programs. As schools begin bilingual-bicultural programs, schools may have difficulty recruiting native
signers of ASL because their numbers are limited. Further, while
staff may have excellent skills in signed English, they often do
not have proficient ASL skills and must be retrained. Some
opposition may result in this effort. At this time, most university
education programs continue to prepare teachers of the deaf in
the philosophy of Total Communication. Generally, the level of
sign language proficiency required by most universities, states,
and certifying agencies is inadequate.
Lack of ASL classes for parents or caregivers, especially in
rural areas, may severely restrict communication in the home.
Without fluent language models, Deaf children's language will be
developed neither optimally nor naturally.
What Are Some Questions to Ask in Choosing a Bilingual-Bicultural
- How many of the educational staff are native ASL signers
and/or fluent ASL signers?
- How are signing skills evaluated?
- How is English developed?
- When is English introduced in the
- What support is given to parents or caregivers to
- How are children who developed language late or
have limited language proficiency treated in this type of
- How does the curriculum compare to that of hearing
- Where do you recruit staff?
- How will I know if my child
is progressing adequately?
References and Additional Resources
Bicultural Center, 5506 Kenilworth Ave., Suite 105, Riverdale,
MD 20737-3106, (301) 277-3945 (V); (301) 277-3944 (TTY).
California School for the Deaf, 30350 Gallaudet Dr., Fremont, CA
94538, (510) 794-3666 (V/TTY).
Finnegan, M. (1992). Bilingual-bicultural education. The
Endeavor, 3, 1-8. The American Society for Deaf Children.
Johnson, R., Liddell, S., & Erting, C. (1989). Unlocking the
curriculum: Principles for achieving access in deaf education.
Washington, DC: Gallaudet University.
Learning Center for Deaf Children, 848 Central St., Framingham,
MA 01701, (508) 875-5110 (V/TTY). Mahshie, S. (1995).
Educating deaf children bilingually. Washington, DC: Gallaudet
Maxwell, M. (1991). Characteristics of a successful bilingual pro-
gram. In Proceedings of the New Orleans CAID/CEASD
Newport, E. & Sapulla, T. (1987). A critical period effect in the
acquisition of a primary language. Unpublished manuscript.
Schirmer, B. (1994). Language and literacy development in
children who are deaf. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co.
Wolkomir, R. (1992). American Sign Language: It's not mouth
stuff -- it's brain stuff. Smithsonian, 23 (4), 30-41.
Sharon Baker, Ed.D., is Assistant Professor of Deaf Education at
the University of Tulsa, Tulsa, Oklahoma. Keith Baker, profoundly deaf since birth, teaches at the Metro
Deaf School, St. Paul, MN, a bilingual-bicultural charter school for
children who are Deaf.
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