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Deaf university students as foreign language learners in mainstream settings - Domagala-Zysk, Ewa

Ewa Domagała-Zyśk
Centre for Education of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland


Teaching foreign languages to the deaf still can be treated as a relatively new educational phenomenon that still needs to be thoroughly searched. Today the teaching process is mainly organized in mainstream institutions, both at primary, secondary and tertiary level. Together with the ideas of normalization and inclusion majority of the deaf students is educated in mainstream institutions and this has to be taken into account by the researchers in the field.

Foreign language is an obligatory subject in Polish schools for pupils in every form, beginning from the 1st grade. English is the favorite language for majority of students. Since 2001 foreign language classes are obligatory also for pupils with hearing impairment. Simultaneously with the educational practice, the theoretical reflection on teaching foreign languages to the deaf started and has been continuously developing (Domagała-Zyśk 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010; Harań 2005), creating the body of a new science discipline, teaching and learning foreign language by the deaf individuals.

The main approach used in Poland in education the deaf it is an oral approach and this idea is also visible in teaching English to the deaf: They are taught all four language skills, reading, writing, listening and speaking. The main methodological idea is to use in teaching languages to the deaf the same approach, the same methods and differentiate only the techniques: way of communication with the students and different prompts used in the classroom. CIT serves a lot as a way of modifying the language environment and creating an accessible classroom.

So far the research has concentrated on the students themselves, their cognitive skills (Domagała-Zyśk 2008, 2010c), learning styles (Domagała-Zyśk 2011), vocabulary acquisition (Domagała-Zyśk 2009) or reading comprehension skills (Domagała-Zyśk 2010b). However, there is not a single study known that would touch the problem of the teachers’ preparation to undertake this job. The issue is the more difficult because language teachers in mainstream schools has more often than in the past to work with the disabled students, but the education the teachers possess has not prepared them to perform this job and does not enable them to work effectively with the disabled students.

Thinking about the aim of teaching a foreign language to the deaf the teacher should have a much wider perspective than only achieving a certain level of language skills. Learning foreign language for a deaf person is sometimes a means of creating one’s own attitude to learning in general. On the other hand during the lessons we do not only obtain some information but also develop our personality. It is very important to be aware of the fact that foreign language learning has also a therapeutic value, as it compensates the state of deprivation experienced by our pupils. Hearing impairment is first of all a language impairment that is why each English language lesson is first of all a language lesson, it creates an occasion to learn something about a nature of language in general. Deaf students, even after several years of learning, usually have some problems with using their national language perfectly, even being almost adults they make mistakes. While learning a new language they revise grammar (e.g. the names and functions of the different parts of the speech), become more aware of creating some basic structures, have the chance to compare their language and the newly learnt language. At the first stages Polish students often conclude: English is easier than Polish. There seem to be a grain of truth in it: Polish inflection, all the exceptions from the rules make it for the deaf almost impossible to use Polish language correctly. English is more predictable for them, so at the beginning they feel better at it. I try to communicate with my students in English and I must admit that their sms’es or e-mails in English are sometimes more correct that their Polish ones. I also remember one lesson, when we did the second conditional. Just after giving the rules of creating the sentences I asked a student of mine to give me his own example of the second conditional and I received a sentence: If I were a monk I would live on an uninhabited island, I would swim in a sea and I would play with exotic animals. I am almost sure that even now he would add some improper suffixes to the Polish version of it. It is worthy to add that during foreign language lessons the students enlarge their general knowledge and also get some new vocabulary, learn synonyms and antonyms of the words. It sometimes happens that I give them the Polish translation of a word and I am asked to explain what the Polish word mean, the examples I remember may be as following: chauffeur, manor, spa, bossy, and a lot of others.

Taking into account both the contemporary psycholinguistic knowledge and the accounts about successful attempts of teaching foreign language to the deaf, it must be stressed that there are no psychological or methodological obstructions to teaching a foreign language to the deaf. To prove that many psychological research may be cited, e.g. Krakowiak (1995), MacSweeney (1998), Parasnis (1998), Marschark, Lang, Albertini (2002), in which deaf students present intellectual abilities similar to these of hearing students, in some areas reaching even better results (Bavelier 2006, Parasnis et al. 1996, Rettenbach R., Diller G., Sireteanu R. 1999), although the danger of over-generalisation of these results should be avoided. In pedagogicial literature there are also described some successful experiments of teaching a foreign language to the deaf (Domagała-Zyśk 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, Harań, Gulati 2006, Janakova 2005, Allen 2005, Valgerdur 1999, Zabajewska 2004, Kennedy, Cohn 1992, Batyra 2004). It is worth noticing that the students presented different degrees of hearing loss and different methods of teaching were used. Taking this into consideration it may be pointed out that surdoglottodidactics1 in general does not differ from a classical foreign language learning methodology, neither as far as the approach nor as far as the method of teaching is concerned. Moreover, the author’s view is that creating a special methodology would mean creating a special “language ghetto”, that is why it is advisable to try to do the opposite: foreign language learning should be treated is a tool to open the deaf peoples’ minds, to give them a tool to communicate with others, to provide access to different sources of information (e.g. Internet) in order to help them feel integrated with the society.

While teaching the deaf a teacher can use the approach which he or she thinks most suitable: be it communicative approach, humanistic approach, self-directed learning approach or Total Physical Response, just to name a few most common ones (Harmer 1991). The methods of teaching (understood as a way of selection and portioning the material to be thought into didactics units and individual lessons), are also not different from these used in a regular classroom. They depend on a teacher’ intuition or style of work, and are usually based on the approach chosen by a teacher. The only things which are different are the techniques of teaching, understood as the teacher’s and the student’s activities during a lesson. During a lesson we use textbooks and class equipment similar to these used in the classes for the hearing students. Generally the techniques used in a classroom should be modified according to the abilities and disabilities of a particular deaf child, that is why the ideal solution seem be to work with the students individually or in small groups of 3–4 people. Teaching the deaf, a teacher must know a special way of communicating with his or her deaf students, bring special prompts to make the clues for learning visible, much more often use writing as a way of communication, be careful about his or her position in a classroom, speak more clearly than usual, etc. (Domagała-Zyśk 2003a, b, c, 2005a, b, 2006a, b).

In the classroom practice with EFL deaf students the teacher must take into consideration the following issues:

  • The basic thing should be to present the exact meaning of the new word precisely, which means that it should be checked whether the student know the native equivalent of it, is able to use the new word in a proper context and can operate it: construct its family, find synonyms and antonyms, explain their usage in different grammar context. A teacher should remember that a deaf student lack the possibility of spontaneous EFL learning outside the classroom, so the EFL lesson provides the basic opportunity to get accustomed with new words.
  • A deaf student should be also assisted in creating his/her own EFL learning strategies, like mind mapping, using pictures, drawings, tables, graphs, searching the Internet for new ways of using the words (comp. e.g. Lawton 2005, Sun Y., Dong Q. 2004; Sun, Dong 2004) or writing SMS in English (comp. e.g. Power, Power 2004).
  • Psychological research teaches us that the deaf people find it easier to learn single items than collocations. It is helpful for the students if they are taught not how to recite language, but how to operate it. Here the question of the students’ work assessment arises: language correctness cannot be the aim of its own, because in the case of the deaf students it sometimes means that the students rather use ready-made structures than produce meaningful sentences of their own, as they are afraid to make a mistake. Reading comprehension or writing exercises should be treated as an occasion to use language creatively, even if it means making mistakes.
  • EFL deaf students should be provided with more classes of EFL than the hearing persons, as both explaining new material and revising it systematically takes much more time than in case of the hearing students.
  • Another important issue is the motivation to learn a foreign language. Generally deaf Polish students (as majority of Polish students nowadays) have high motivation to learn a foreign language. This primary motivation might be strengthen by creating a positive emotional atmosphere during the classes. At our university, as the classes are small, very personal relationship may be established among the teacher and the students. The student feel safe and emotionally engaged and that is why EFL may be personalized and the students can ask questions like: How old is your daughter, What is your husband’s name?, etc. and comment on their own experiences: My brother is quite lazy, my sister works half-time. Thanks to that the main aim of language teaching, communication, can be easily achieved.
  • Our experience taught us that pronunciation should also, to some extent, be taught, on the condition that the student wants it and he/she mastered to a certain extent speech in his/her national language. It is advisable to suggest the student which words are the most important to be learnt and base the work on the students experiences from his/her speech therapy classes: in many cases they are able to work consciously on pronouncing certain phonemes and reach good results in speaking English, especially in a well-known context.

Using information technology is one of the most effective techniques, and there are a lot of possibilities to use this tool in our work with deaf students:

  • In order to use it they must know something about it. We must remem ber that deaf students usually do not pick up information spontaneously, listening to the radio programmes, watching TV, using computer games, freely sharing information with their peers – they usually have to be taught each piece of knowledge we want them to possess. Because of this fact it is advisable to help them e.g. in deciphering manuals and other usage instructions. My students were e.g. very surprised after reading one of specially prepared for them text that Internet was invented in the late eighties and they definitely could not understand how was it possible for people like me to study and graduate without using it!
  • Internet is a rich source of information for deaf students, it enables them to be more independent in looking for what they are interested in. During our classes we check these web sites that give interesting information about the students’ favourite film stars or sportsmen and sportswomen, life stories of deaf people, facts about deaf communities around the world.
  • Internet provides an excellent opportunity for improving reading and writing skills, e.g. it makes it possible to read magazines on-line. Some students systematically do it and one of them, Łukasz was lucky enough to publish his life story (in English) in an on-line magazine On Cue.
  • Students also spend some of their free time using English web sites, as during our classes they proudly inform me that they managed to chat or exchange e-mails in English with their peers, sometimes even with native speakers, thus developing better cultural understanding and cross-cultural communication skills.
  • Our favourite media, however, is still a mobile phone. It makes it possible for me and my students to be in contact practically all the time. As the groups are small (2–3 people) I ask them to inform me (in English, of course) about each smallest change in our timetable. If they feel like they are going to be some minutes late I expect them to send me an SMS. Using this way of communication they can also cancel or postpone a class (so see you on Tuesday at 5 pm), inform me about their sudden illness or unexpected success during exams, check whether I am all right after my flu (Will I meet with you on English today at 4 o’clock in afternoon?) Not mentioning Christmas or Easter greetings!
  • Occasionally typical English learning computer programmes (like e.g. Polish Your English) are also used, but generally they are used by students at home as their extra circular work.
  • Television still appears to be the most common media used by majority of deaf students. All of them admit they spend a lot of time watching TV and it is definitely their favourite pastime. Fortunately, sometimes they choose films in foreign channels so they are “forced” to watch films with subtitles in English. Some of my students told me that they spend 3–4 hours a week watching films with English subtitles – it is pretty much and perhaps bad for their general development but definitely good for their English skills.

The aim of the paper is to show the special educational needs of the deaf and hard of hearing students in the context of foreign language acquisition in mainstream settings. Analysis of the learning and teaching reality and research results calls for significant actions to be taken so as to prepare the foreign language school teachers to work with different students, also with students with hearing impairment.

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