By Razi Zarchy
November 26, 2008
Deaf Language Acquisition and Transfer to Literacy
For many years, there has been an ongoing debate in the field of
deaf education about the best language modality for deaf children.
Today, there is a constant push-and-pull between the use of signed
and spoken language, particularly for the deaf children of hearing
parents. Because hearing parents often want their children to
communicate in the same way that they do, they may choose spoken
English as the primary language of their deaf child. In this paper,
I will demonstrate that this emphasis on spoken English is not the
best alternative for providing a deaf child with the optimum
environment for learning language. Rather, an approach using
American Sign Language (ASL) as the child’s primary language of
communication, along with the introduction of English literacy from
a young age, is a better method to allow the child to reach their
optimum language and literacy capabilities.
Deafness or other hearing loss is generally considered to be a risk
factor for language difficulties. R. Paul (2007) lists the aspects
of language with which children with hearing impairments often
struggle. They often have disordered phonology in spoken English, as
well as greatly delayed syntax. It is of note that when it comes to
semantic relations, children with hearing loss who are learning
speech show delays in semantic relations, while children learning
sign language show the same rates of semantic development as hearing
children learning spoken language. However, little of the literature
on language disorders addresses the positive effects that learning
sign language can have on the language outcomes of deaf children.
For various reasons, many deaf children do not have the opportunity
to be exposed to language from birth. This delayed language
acquisition causes a significant difference in signed language
knowledge and processing between deaf individuals exposed to
language at earlier ages versus those who were exposed to language
at later ages (Chamberlain, Morford, and Mayberry, 2000). If deaf
children do not have this essential exposure to sign language from a
young age, even attempts to include deaf children in mainstream
classrooms by providing interpreters can be ineffectual because the
children’s language abilities are not high enough to understand what
is being signed to them (Marschark, 2000). Language exposure from
birth is imperative to positive outcomes later in life, particular
in the realm of literacy.
The level of a deaf child’s ASL proficiency has been tied to that
child’s English literacy. Cummins’s (1981, 1989) linguistic
interdependence theory states that “all languages share a common
underlying proficiency and that cognitive and academic skills
acquired in a first language will transfer to related skills in a
second language” (as cited in Strong & Prinz, 2000, p. 132). To
prove this point, Strong and Prinz (2000) found significant
correlations between ASL ability and English literacy in their
research sample as a whole. They also found that students with deaf
mothers outperformed students with hearing mothers on both measures.
In addition, they found when it comes to deaf children of deaf and
hearing parents, the academic differences can be attributed to
fluency in ASL.
According to Prinz and Strong, (1998), research has found a positive
relationship between ASL and English literacy when ASL is used as
the primary mode of communication in the classroom (as cited in R.
Paul, 2007). Exposing deaf children to print at home and at school,
reading them stories, and making literacy a fun activity can
encourage them to develop literacy skills analogous with those of
their hearing peers. If native ASL signers learn English as a second
language as a young age, they perform just like hearing children who
learn English as a second language at the same age.
When a view of deaf children’s language is confined to spoken
English, the outcomes are often disordered or delayed. It is well
known that children with disordered or delayed language often have
difficulty with literacy once they reach school age. However, early
exposure to sign language for deaf children can reverse this effect.
The stronger these children become in their native language of ASL,
the more proficient readers they will become. Early mastery of ASL
is necessary for these children to learn English as a second
language at a young age. Improved literacy can lead to improved
outcomes in education and employment throughout life.
Cummins, J. (1981). The role of primary language development in
promoting educational success for language minority students. In
Schooling and language minority students: A theoretical framework
(pp. 3-50). Los Angeles: California State University, Evaluation,
Dissemination, and Assessment Center.
Cummins, J. (1989). Empowering minority students. Sacramento:
California State Association for Bilingual Education.
Marschark, M. (2000). Education and Development of Deaf Children--or
Is It Development and Education? In Spencer, P. E., Erting, C. J., &
Marschark, M. (Eds.), The Deaf Child in the Family and at School
(pp. 275-291). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Morford, J. P., & Mayberry, R. I. (2000). A Reexamination of "Early
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Adolescence (3rd ed.). St. Louis, Missouri: Mosby Elsevier.
Prinz, P., & Strong, M. (1998). ASL Proficiency and English literacy
within a bilingual deaf education model of instruction. Topics in
Language Disorders, 18(4), 47-60.
Strong, M., & Prinz, P. (2000). Is American Sign Language Skill
Related to English Literacy? In Chamberlain, C., Morford, J. P., &
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Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.