Are deaf people deprived of their “mother language”?

Today, we celebrate “International Mother Language Day”. Held every 21st day of February as approved at the 1999 General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), it was born out of the initiative of Bangladesh and has been observed worldwide since 2000.

UNESCO commemorates this day to the belief that,

in the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity for sustainable societies. It is within its mandate for peace that it works to preserve the differences in cultures and languages that foster tolerance and respect for others. [link]

This recognition centers on the observation that native languages are increasingly threatened as more and more languages disappear. Dominant languages have been emphasized excessively that modern kids were discouraged in schools to use the language they use at home. Aside from that, books and other written materials using their mother language were scarce and readily unavailable. Nevertheless, progress is being made in mother tongue-based multilingual education with a growing understanding of its importance, particularly in early schooling, and more commitment to its development in public life.

But what about those who are deprived of language acquisition? What about those who were not able to access their “mother language” the moment they were born? How do we address those vulnerable sectors, most especially those who are deaf and hard-of-hearing?

What is Language Deprivation?

Language deprivation means, exactly, a language that is taken away from people. According to Therapy Travellers Website, Language deprivation is

 the term used for when a child does not have access to a naturally occurring language during their critical language-learning years. [link]

Deaf children are the most affected because they are not exposed to a language that would develop their cognitive growth. A deaf baby has not received any language exposure during the critical period between ages 0 to 2.

To illustrate,

stick figure of parent asking a hearing child what he wants and replies with milk, milk, milk
The hearing parent asks his hearing child what he wants. The hearing child replies by speaking what he needs which is milk.

 

The hearing parent can readily communicate with his baby what he needs because they both have access to sounds and speech. A baby with no hearing impairment would easily acquire speech and language. Studies show that the brain forms more than one million new neural connections every second from age 0 to 5. This means that they can accumulate emotional and physical health, social skills, and cognitive-linguistic capacities that emerge in the early years. [link]

 

 

stick figure of a deaf child asking milk but the parent doesn't understand
A deaf baby asking his father to give him milk. But the father asks “What do you want?” because he does not understand the baby.

Now compare that with a deaf baby interacting with his parents. Since a deaf baby does not hear her parents, he does not understand what they mean. He cannot associate any actions to the words or phrases that come out of their parents’ mouths because nothing enters his ears. No matter what the baby utters, the parent cannot seem to understand him. Does he need to pee? Is he hungry? Does he want to go out? Is he sick? Does he want to play? Situations like this often lead to frustrations, irritations, and tantrums. Eventually, this leads to ignoring the baby’s needs and thus stunt his overall emotional and intellectual growth.

That is language deprivation.

 

 

Worldwide, over 5% has disabling hearing loss, roughly 466 million people. 90% of deaf children are born with hearing parents. This means that their parents are not familiar with or even aware of how to deal with having a deaf child. So, their tendency is to just give the deaf kid what they perceived he wants without affirmation that it was really what he wants. Worse, the parents would just let them be and do their own thing. Problems in the delay in language development would appear when they are already in school, work, communicating with others, and even self-confidence.

Baby Sign Language

Research has shown that early exposure to a first language will predict future language outcomes. The earlier he can acquire a language, the better he can succeed. And since a deaf baby can learn a language using his eyes, he should be exposed to sign language at the earliest possible time.  Because signed languages are the only languages that are 100% accessible to a deaf child, we can be sure that the child’s brain is receiving language input.

Stick figure of a parent teaching his deaf child the sign for milk
A parent teaches his baby the sign language for milk while at the same time mouthing the words milk and holding the feeding bottle.

Deaf children who do not learn to sign until later in life are more likely to process signed languages not as linguistic input, but as visual input, contrasting with children exposed from birth, who process signed language in the same region of the brain in which hearing people process spoken language. Scientists suggest that the best guarantee of good language outcomes for Deaf children is to establish Sign Language as a secure first language before a cochlear implant program (CIP) is considered.[link]

I created an infographic about this today as part of our Deaf Sensitivity Series. It was posted on the official Facebook page of our school for the deaf. As of this writing, it has been shared nearly 50 times. Feel free to download the image below. 🙂

infographic

You may also view a very informative video below created by Nyle DiMarco Foundation of the hugely popular “America’s Next Top Model” deaf winner.

Happy International Mother Language Day! 🙂

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