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Early Language Development of the Deaf and Its Relation to Foreign Language Learning - Foniokova, Zuzana

Jitka Sedláčková, Zuzana Fonioková
Support Centre for Students with Special Needs, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic


The paper deals with the complicated nature of mother tongue of the deaf1 and the impact this has on their foreign language learning. Different approaches to mother tongue acquisition will be summarized, and the influence of age and language input on the process will be explained in the context of the linguistic situation of the deaf who often grow up with two languages. The effect of an already acquired language on learning other languages will also be mentioned. Finally, the paper will relate these issues to the linguistic situation of the deaf and apply its conclusions to teaching foreign languages to the deaf.

First of all we need to define the target group in question. The term ‘deaf’ is not easily defined since the group it defines is far from homogeneous. It can be viewed from two perspectives – biological and cultural. In terms of linguistic research, prelingual deafness seems to be the most remarkable, and there are two basic reasons for that. First, this group can be defined fairly clearly as profoundly deaf people who were born without hearing or lost their hearing before acquiring speech2. Second, considerable difficulties in the development of spoken language skills have been observed in this group. Nonetheless, taking into account the impact an individual’s cultural characteristics have on language acquisition, the cultural perspective should also be considered. The above stated choice complies with this requirement as well, as the prelingually deaf form the culturally most distinct group.

The first challenge in the debate about teaching languages to the deaf is terminology. The common terms used in the field of teaching are first language (mother tongue) and second (i.e. foreign)3 language (and possibly third, fourth, etc. language). However, in the case of the deaf, another issue comes into play: the complicated question of which language can be regarded as the mother tongue of the deaf and which language the particular deaf individual considers as his/her mother tongue (these two points of view can differ). Opinions differ as to what is the main criterion for determining one’s mother tongue (e.g. the parents’ language or the first language acquired). For example, the mother tongue of most of the deaf in the Czech Republic can be either Czech or Czech Sign Language (CSL). Another topic is the difficulties in the individual languages, such as the struggle of the deaf to fully acquire Czech or the limits of vocabulary in CSL and the fact that speakers of CSL often lack metalinguistic knowledge.

The discussion about the mother tongue of the deaf cannot be seen as purely theoretical if one bears in mind the significance of a fully acquired language for the thought and perception of every individual, as emphasized, for example, by Hans-Georg Gadamer. Furthermore, the level achieved in the mother tongue influences learning other languages. Cummins (qtd. in Spencer & Marschark, 2010, 102–103) postulates the linguistic interdependence hypothesis according to which fluency and high level achieved in one language encourages the development of skills in other languages. Yet this theory is not accepted by all scholars. Mayer and Wells (1996) contend that this theory cannot be applied to the relation between a sign and a spoken language due to their different modality (i.e. visual-spatial and audio-oral).

To return to the topic of language acquisition of the deaf, they often acquire two languages – the national sign language and the spoken language of the majority society. One of them can be (more or less) viewed as the mother tongue, and the other one as the second language. At present the language of the majority society is regarded as the second language (see e.g. Vysuček 2004). Therefore, a foreign language only comes third, which should be reflected in the terminology used (ESL, EFL, ESOL). The teacher should also be aware of the interaction of the two languages acquired and its impact on learning a foreign language.

Second Language Acquisition theories should be approached with these problems in mind as well, particularly the terms language learning and language acquisition. If acquisition is understood as a subconscious process in which the individual absorbs the language input, as it happens in the process of first language acquisition, it remains an open question whether and to what extent this term can be used when talking about the deaf, as in their case the language input is significantly restricted because the main sensory channel (i.e. the auditory channel) employed in perception of spoken languages cannot be used. According to Vaněk, this restriction is one of the main factors that affect the development of skills in Czech and English as far as the Czech deaf are concerned (Vaněk, 2009, 41).

This discussion leads us to several topics that are crucial for teaching languages to the deaf. First, there is the problem of early linguistic development, which is deeply influenced by two factors – age and intake of language input (Vaněk, 2011, 26). Besides the impact of an acquired (first) language on learning other languages, discussed above, the critical period hypothesis should also be mentioned. According to this hypothesis, the ability to acquire a language is biologically linked to age: there is a certain phase during which learning languages is easier, while later it becomes much more difficult or even impossible. In this context, it is important to bear in mind that most deaf children are born to hearing parents who have no command of sign language or are at the beginner level, which means that many deaf children do not have access to sufficient amount of comprehensible language input in the early stages of their development. As Alena Macurova argues, “Although deaf individuals born into hearing families are endowed with […] innate mental dispositions for language, at the critical stages of their development they are often left without any language at all. […] This state of an early absence of language […] inevitably projects into the ability of the deaf to learn other languages” (2005, 32). The critical period hypothesis thus seems to be especially relevant when discussing language teaching to the deaf.

Other researchers (e.g. Castro-Caldas, 1998) argue that some neurological changes occur in the brain during the critical period in one’s development. They claim that learning a certain skill as a child partly determines the structure of the individual’s adult brain. While not all scholars concur with the views of an irrevocable impact of early linguistic development on deaf individuals, there is a consensus that even “if the critical period theories are incorrect, early intervention is an effective way to increase the auditory experience of the deaf” (Blamey, 2003, 241). These opinions play a vital part in teaching spoken languages to the deaf.

The question of the early stage of linguistic development of the deaf entails one of the three main differences between deaf and hearing students of English (as well as other foreign languages), as listed by Vaněk (2011, 41–42). Another difference is the insufficient metalinguistic knowledge of the deaf: unlike the deaf, hearing pupils become familiar with the structures of their mother tongue, they learn to describe and analyse it and can utilize this knowledge when learning other languages. The third dissimilarity involves the different modality of sign language and the target language. Whereas sign language is visual and movement oriented, the target language is audio-oral.

All of the presented issues influence language learning and should be considered by instructors of foreign languages for the deaf. They should not be perceived as insurmountable obstacles but as special challenges that should encourage educators to adjust the methods and techniques of language teaching to the deaf in order to compensate for the extra difficulties the deaf face in language learning. It is therefore important not only to continue the debate about the linguistic situation of the deaf, but also to share the experience of teaching practice and try to find means of identifying and strengthening the advantages and minimizing the disadvantages of these specific circumstances.


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