A reader wrote: “I do want to point out that there are many Spanish or other kind of family growing up in America and the Spanish/Mexican kids speak Spanish with their parents and family and have to go to school and use ENGLISH. Is that any different??”
Yes, dear reader, I think it is. As a developmental psychologist, I was trained to look at the social and emotional impact of the decisions that parents make in raising their children with hearing loss. I’d like to tell you why I think it is different for a Spanish-speaking family to speak Spanish at home even when their children will go to school and speak and learn in English:
The Spanish-speaking family already speaks Spanish in their home. If there are two parents, then they talk, argue, and whisper secrets in Spanish. Research on development of language in hearing children has shown that children learn a tremendous amount of language and other information from overhearing conversations that are not directly to or with them. They learn how their parents and siblings and other family members negotiate with one another, how they argue about issues and how they solve problems. This is without a word uttered to the child specifically. Children with normal hearing naturally pick up the language and social knowledge to be gleaned from the conversations of significant others in their environment. Children with hearing loss need access to this source of social learning no less than their hearing peers and I believe that their need is actually greater. This is because children with hearing loss can often miss some information that is conveyed in social interactions. Therefore, children with hearing loss need exposure to fluent language models to be a source of social and emotional information.
The Spanish-speaking family speaks Spanish fluently. That means that there is a rich and complex language spoken in the home by all of the members of the family. When the child arrives in this family, he can easily take his place within the family context, learning the songs, stories, and traditions that have been part of this family’s fabric for many years. No one is at a loss for how to communicate with this child, even if he will speak a different language later on when he goes to school.
The Spanish-speaking family can tell if their child is having difficulty learning Spanish. Since the parents, siblings, and other family members all learned to speak Spanish, they have a chance of noticing if their child is not picking up the language in the way he should. When parents try to teach a language in which they are not fluent – they will have a very hard time knowing if their child is experiencing problems acquiring the language. I returned home from a conference on deaf children shocked and horrified at video clips of children who were supposed to have been taught sign language in special-education preschool programs but were, in fact, 5 years old with no functional language or method of communication. I was told by the experts in attendance that this is typical for public education in the United States in the 21st century. How would the hearing parents know if their child was not learning sign language?
The Spanish-speaking family can communicate with their newest member with ease. There are accommodations that language speakers make in every language to address new babies. We call this “child-directed speech” or “motherese.” Adults in many cultures, and even children as young as 4 years old (!) change their tone of voice, to speak slower, louder, clearer, more repetitively and in a more melodious song to infants. These adaptations of typical speech facilitate the language learning of the infant. But language cannot truly be separated from the social context of the communication: these adaptations enable the parents, older siblings, and significant others to convey warmth, love, and closeness. When a parent is faced with the challenge of speaking a foreign language to their infant, I cannot imagine how it does not interfere with the intimacy of the communication and the interactions. I know – because my child with hearing loss was born in Israel and I could not see how to speak to him in Hebrew, which is not my native language, and remain able to express the affection that I felt he needed to feel and I wanted to express.
Another reader commented:
“I think you are missing a point. The real comparison is between speaking Greek with your child NOW vs. speaking English with your child in several years. Sign is accessible to a Deaf child NOW, and can be used to facilitate acquisition of English skills. Even today, hearing aids or CI can take several months to several years to never to make spoken language directly accessible to a Deaf child. Sign is immediately accessible. Look at all the families of Hearing children who are using Baby Signs with their infants because they believe the studies that show that Baby Signs accelerate the infant’s cognitive development.”
Typically-developing children with hearing loss in high-quality auditory-verbal therapy develop spoken language skills quickly. All of the children participating in the AV program in Jerusalem (since I worked there, I am most familiar with this program) were developing speech comprehension and production at a steady, and often remarkable rate. There were no children who were unsuccessful at learning spoken language at all – as the reader warns. Most of the children were using one or two cochlear implants with great effort placed on excellent mapping. The child’s speech therapist attends each mapping appointment at the beginning and continues for years if necessary. There were a few children using sophisticated digital hearing aids. Every child was making good progress in spoken language development. Telling people that some children never acquire spoken language is a bit like warning that milk isn’t healthy because if you leave it out too long, it will get rotten. Parents have to look carefully at the quality of all aspects of their child’s intervention program – ear molds, processors, maps, therapy, everything. It is NOT easy, but hard is not the same as impossible.
Typically-developing children with and without hearing loss require time to develop spoken language. No infant is born speaking, it takes time to learn to understand the speech of others and to begin to talk. Infants and parents naturally use a lot of gesture (like pointing) to assist in understanding one another. I am in the midst of this very stage with my hearing almost-2 year old who gets terribly exasperated with her dumb parents who do not always understand what she wants or sometimes are not willing to give her what she wants (like cookies in bed at 5am!). This stage is challenging and sometimes exhausting, but it encourages the parents and the child to keep working at communicating with one another.
Signing to hearing children is a popular fad, but that does not mean it good for children. A recent article by Dr Brenda Seal, an expert in sign language and professor at Gallaudet University, describes the lack of evidence to support the claim that baby sign is advantageous to infants’ cognitive or language development. Here is a link to her article:
These days, kids all wear silly bandz, (which I have no problem with, as long as they don’t fight over them), since many children play with and collect them – are they good for children? Similarly, just because parents sign to hearing babies, doesn’t mean it is beneficial to children, it just means that people do it. It takes more than “people” to convince me.
Readers: I appreciate your interest and your comments. Your feedback is very important! Thank you!