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Why our deaf daughter is learning both spoken English and ASL

teaching deaf child English and sign language
When my kiddo was diagnosed with hearing loss, the health department sent us a chart of communication options. On one side, it said “visual.” On the other, it said “auditory.” Conspicuously missing from that list? An option that includes both visual and auditory communication. 

A bilingual communication plan is a sweet spot between auditory and visual. It isn’t an either/or option. It’s all of the above.

In years past, parents of children with hearing loss often faced a choice to choose between visual and verbal languages. They were told that sign language would delay speech development. Not surprisingly, many parents chose not to sign.

Fast forward to today. Experts now say that gesturing does not delay speech development. There have even been studies that show that early gesturing can enhance speech outcomes.

“Encouraging children to gesture at very early ages has the potential to increase the size of their spoken vocabularies at school entry,” according to researchers at the University of Chicago, who published their findings in the journal, American Psychologist.

Researchers found several reasons why gestures enhance speech development:


Can gestures and sign language enhance speech development?

1. Early communication

Gestures allow children to express meaning by hand before they can do so by mouth. Eventually, these gestures can becomes speech, according to the report.

“A great many of the lexical items that each child produced initially in gesture later moved to that child’s verbal lexicon,” according to University of Pittsburgh psychologists.

2. Encourage speech

Gestures may elicit speech from caregivers, further increasing the amount of communication the child is receiving. For example, if a child points to a cat, the mother might see the gesture and say, “Yes, it is a cat!” The gesture mediates the spoken word acquisition.

“Gesture has the potential to alert listeners to the fact that a child is ready to learn a particular word or sentence,” say researchers Goldin-Meadow.

3.Provide a foundation

In a University of Pittsburgh study, children who combined a gesture with a spoken word were faster to produce two-word spoken utterances.

“Children who were first to produce gesture-plus-word combinations conveying two elements in a proposition (point at bird and say “nap”) were also first to produce two-word combinations (‘bird nap’),” according to Iverson and Goldin-Meadow.


Why we are raising our daughter bilingually

With the cognitive benefits of gesture in mind, we chose a bilingual, English and American Sign Language (ASL), communication plan for our daughter Raina.

A bilingual communication plan doesn’t mean Raina is fluent in ASL. We are a “hearing” family, so none of us are fluent in sign language – yet. “Bilingual” simply means that Raina uses two languages, English and ASL, to express herself. It also ensures she receives the kind of early intervention services we want for her.

Raina’s Phonak Sky hearing aids helps give her access to spoken English, while ASL gives her access to anything hearing loss might cause her to miss.

Read more: Why hearing aids and sign language are a happy pair

At best, one day she’ll achieve fluency in both languages. At worst, we provided her with as much language and communication opportunities as we could.

We know the gene that caused our daughter’s hearing loss is sometimes progressive – meaning her hearing loss could get worse. It may stay the same, but it may also get worse.

“… our daughter’s hearing loss is sometimes progressive – meaning her hearing loss could get worse.”

To address this, her audiologist checks her hearing every six months for changes. If her hearing gets worse and we aren’t signing, Raina could miss out on six months of language learning. So, we chose a bilingual communication plan as her safest bet.

There are other ways to successfully and meaningfully communicate with a deaf or hard of hearing child. Our strategies may differ but our intent is the same. We love our children and want to communicate with them.

What communication plan did you choose and why? Did your communication strategy change as your child aged?

Author Details
Morgan Snook is a writer from the Pennsylvania Wilds region. She enjoys being outdoors with her husband and two beautiful daughters. Her youngest daughter has mild-to-moderately severe bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, probably genetic. She wears Phonak Sky hearing aids, which she got at three months old.