Sign bilingualism: challenges and perspectives along the research- policy-practice axis

Sign bilingualism, as outlined at the beginning of this work, is determined by a complex interaction of internal and external variables. Education, as we learned in this chapter, plays a key role in the path toward sign bilingualism because of the specific sign language transmission patterns and the unequal accessibility of the two languages in the deaf child. Throughout the preceding sections we have sketched the developments leading to the current diversity of approaches in the education of deaf students. We have sought to trace the status of sign language in deaf education with a view to obtaining a clearer picture of whether and how deaf students’ bilingualism is promoted in the educational domain.

Sign bilingual education, as we have learned throughout the preceding sections does not represent a monolithic phenomenon. Variation in didactic conceptions and educational placements make apparent that in sign bilingual education, much like in other types of bilingual education, different, and often conflicting, objectives need to be reconciled. Clearly, language choice in education is not only a decision about what language competences are envisaged. Language choice is also bound to more general objectives pertaining to the academic and social development of the students.

The goal oriented argumentation in favour of the inclusion of sign language in deaf education whereby sign language is attributed a promoting function for the cognitive, linguistic, and academic development of deaf children has proven to be fruitful to the extent that many bilingual programmes have been implemented in the last years in various countries around the world, including the bilingual programmes established in Hamburg and in Berlin (Gunther & Hennies 2011). However, several decades after the implementation of the first bilingual education programmes, the bilingual promotion of deaf students continues to represent the exception rather than the norm in deaf education. What are the factors that have worked against a wider distribution of this type of education and its sustainable implementation as an alternative to monolingual oralist approaches? As we argue in Plaza-Pust (2016), several circumstances make sign bilingual edu?cation vulnerable as an option vis-a-vis oralist approaches, including a lack of coordinated action in the conception and implementation of sign bilingual education, and a lack of agreement regarding expected outcomes (that is, “benefits”) of sign bilingual education.

Lack of coordinated action. Many of the remaining shortcomings of sign bilingual education working against a sustainable promotion of sign bilingualism result from a bottom-up model of language planning that has been characteristic of the majority of bilingual programmes run in the last decades.11 Typically, these programmes have been established mainly as a result of bottom-up activities of several interest groups or NGOs, including parents’ associations and deaf associations, and also educational professionals. Where bottom-up processes are not followed by top-down measures taken at the institutional level, much effort is required on the side of the professionals involved to secure the continuity of the programme, and to organise the human and financial resources necessary for this purpose.

This situation contrasts with the top-down model of sign language planning that resulted in the institutionalisation of bilingual education of deaf students in Sweden (Ahlgren 1994; Bagga-Gupta 2004; Bergman 1994; Svartholm 1993; Mahshie 1997). However, this model is neither devoid of shortcomings as has been pointed out by those scholars who have remarked not only on the lack of research needed to support the shift to a new educational option but also on the lack of a continued evaluation upon its implementation (cf. Bagga-Gupta 2004 for an extended discussion). The situation is slightly different in the case of pilot bilingual education programmes, such as the ones established in Montreal and Berlin, that have been determined by both bottom-up and top-down processes, the former being decisive for the consideration of a bilingual concept as an option at the political level, the latter modelling the educational requirements these programmes would have to fulfil.

A sustainable promotion of sign bilingualism in deaf education needs to be addressed in the context of a coherent holistic type of planning as it was described in section 1.2.3 for sign language planning in general. This would involve all stakeholders (i.e. administration, teachers, parents, deaf associations) with the aim of (a) guaranteeing an alignment of the different measures that need to be taken, and (b) allowing for a more balanced information flow in the research-policy-practice axis that would work toward the eventual consolidation of the bilingual education option and its improvement. [1]

Challenges at the level of practice. Clearly, the lack of co-ordinated action misses the chance of using effectively the human and financial resources available. Many sign bilingual education programmes are confronted with an increasing complexity of individual and social demands that cannot be solved in the educational institutions alone. The continuity of many bilingual pilot projects is threatened to the extent that what is being done still needs to be defended, financed, and organised.

Because sign bilingual education is not institutionalised in the majority of countries, the bilingual programmes do not only often struggle for survival, as we mentioned previously. Professionals working in these settings also face the task of developing their own teaching conceptions, teaching materials and assessment tools (Komesaroff 2001; Morales-Lopez 2008; Plaza-Pust 2004). There is a generalised lack of a bilingual methodology specifically devised for sign language-oral language bilingualism. In many cases, the teaching personnel involved in bilingual education have no adequate training in bilingualism in general, and sign bilingualism in particular. In sign bilingual education, written language is taught as an L2, but teachers are seldom informed about the theoretical underpinnings of this type of acquisition scenario (Bagga-Gupta & Domfors 2003; Morales-Lopez 2008) and the alternative routes that deaf children may take in their development of writing and reading (see Supalla & Cripps 2008; Padden & Ramsey 1998). Further, contrastive teaching is assigned an important role, but there is a general lack of knowledge about the latest insights in sign language linguistics and the impact of a critical language awareness on the developmental process, an issue that is at the focus in education of other linguistic minority students (Siebert-Ott 2001).

Unfortunately, the circumstances described also work against one of the crucial aims of bilingual education, namely, the early promotion of sign language. Many deaf children only reach bilingual education programs at a later age, often with only rudimentary language skills, because medical advice and early intervention are still predominantly oralist (Gunther 2008).

Indeed, the increasing diversification of approaches adopted in deaf education contrasts with the predominance of aural methods in the domain of early intervention (Gunther 2014: 18), which bears the risk for bilingual programmes of winding up in a “repairing business”, catering for those deaf children that have failed in other models. According to Gunther (2014: 18), thus far, a truly bilingual promotion commonly begins only at school as early intervention tends to focus on the promotion of one language (either spoken language or sign language).

Another persistent problem concerns parents’ lack of access to information about the chances and the shortcomings of the different educational options available. One issue that is seldom addressed explicitly concerns the concept of otherness that underlies the decision making process when it comes to language choice for the deaf child. Between the two alternative views of deafness sketched previously, parents are trapped in the circularity of relying on specialists (technicians) that, in turn, seem to deprive them from their parental functions (Sabria 2006: 19). Against this backdrop, the relevance of early intervention measures that include the advice of deaf adults upon diagnosis needs to be emphasized. Yet more often than not contact with deaf adults is eluded precisely due to a lack of information.

The latter observation leads us to the more general issue of the little attention sociolinguistic and cultural dimensions of bilingualism in the deaf communities have received in the area of deaf education. Indeed, an aspect that continues to be controversial, and is also of relevance in the discussion about the most appropriate educational placements, concerns the notion of biculturalism in the education of deaf students (Massone 2008; de Klerk 1998; Mugnier 2006a; b). Whilst sign bilingual education is also bicultural for some educational professionals, the idea of deaf culture and related bicultural component of deaf education is rejected by others. In the end, what this discrepancy reveals is that there are diverging views about whether sign bilingualism is the intended outcome (following the type of maintenance bilingual education) or rather regarded as a transitional phenomenon in terms of an “educational tool”, which patterns with the variation observed in other types of linguistic minority education (Baker 2001: 204). The latter view, widespread among teaching professionals (cf. Mugnier 2006 for a discussion of the situation in France, Massone 2008 for Argentina), commonly attributes sign language the status of a teaching tool, without acknowledging its cultural component. We are confronted then with a restricted view of bilingualism, reducing the language of choice to a tool to improve academic achievement.

Heterogeneity of linguistic profiles. Based on our discussion of the main variables in deaf education, we can conclude that between the two ideals of a monolingual and a bilingual deaf student, a diversity of linguistic profiles can be encountered in the deaf student population. This variation is reflected in a continuum of profiles illustrated in Table 1.4. Linguistic profiles range from mother tongue acquisition of one (= type E) or both languages (= type A), the acquisition of one of the two languages as a second language (= type B), a partial acquisition of one (= type C) or both languages (= type F) to only a rudimentary acquisition of one (= type D) or both languages (= type G).

Table 1.4. Linguistic profiles (based on Plaza-Pust 2005: 277).

Oral language

Sign language L1




















no competence


With respect to the bilingual development of deaf children in sign language and oral language it is important to always remember that the majority of deaf children are born to parents not native in sign language. This emphasises the relevance of supportive intervention measures for the acquisition of both sign language and oral language. Obvious as it may seem, it is important to note that sign language is not acquired through “some form of manual communication”, nor is it attained “by chance”. Unfortunately, the social (peer-group) transmission pattern of sign language is often confused with the assumption that deaf children would naturally acquire the language at any age, provided they encounter other deaf peers. Not only do we know today that late sign language learners do exhibit deficits particularly at the morphosyntactic level (Singleton et al. 2004; Mayberry 2007); what is more important is that many deaf children never had the chance to develop a true mother tongue in the first place, which has severe consequences for their acquisition of a second language (including sign language) at a later age because their language faculty did not develop appropriately during the sensitive period for language acquisition.

What we can glean from the preceding observations is that deaf students represent a heterogeneous population, with marked individual differences not only regarding the degree of hearing loss, but also with respect to their educational experiences, their linguistic profiles, and often additional learning needs. For multiple reasons, including the temporary character of some bilingual programmes, or the change in orientation from primary to secondary education, many deaf students are exposed to diverse methods and placed in different types of educational settings in the course of their development. Often they are unprepared for the changes affecting the communication and teaching situation in their new classroom (Gras 2008; Plaza-Pust 2004). Another variable that is generally acknowledged but remains largely unconsidered pertains to the diversity of the students’ linguistic profiles related to their migration background. Unfortunately, the impact of a lack of alignment of the oral languages (and, at times, also sign languages) used at home and in school remains largely unexplored.

Advances in hearing aid technology (especially CI) have opened new perspectives in the promotion of the spoken language and they have changed conceptions of the needs and abilities of deaf children. Unfortunately, technological advances have sharpened the discussion about the choice of the most suitable education option which is often coupled with a confusion of arguments and a derogatory attitude towards sign language, which translates into a lack of support of sign bilingual education. What is often overlooked is that CIs do not remedy deafness, and that many children do not benefit from CIs as would be expected.

As for the increasing number of deaf children with a CI in sign bilingual education, the challenge lies in the definition of sign bilingual conceptions that would take the spectrum of student profiles and their evolution seriously by adopting a flexible conception of what might be the dominant or more advanced language in the course of the deaf child’s development. Against the backdrop of the variation observed in spoken language development in CI children, the flexibility of such an approach seems to be more suitable to meet the demands and needs of this population (Gunther 2014: 29). It is important to note in this context that the type of flexibility envisaged is not to be confused with a total communication approach (using all means available) or a sequential conception of a choice of methods (in the sense of the repairing business mentioned previously) but rather the provision of a bilingual promotion of the two languages combined with a continuous evaluation to ensure that the needs and abilities in both languages are considered throughout the students’ academic life.

Research perspectives. As can be gleaned from the preceding observations, the demands, measures and expectations of the different parties involved in language planning targeting sign languages and sign bilingualism vary substantially. This variation, reflected in the diversity of education options discussed previously, not only raises the question about the educational objectives pursued; it also raises the question about the role of research in the evaluation and assessment of sign bilingual education programmes, on the one hand, and its contribution to our understanding of the development and maintenance of sign bilingualism, on the other hand.

Unfortunately, little room has been given to a critical appraisal of sign bilingual education programmes. Because the discussion in the field of deaf education is still polarised, deficits - where they are acknowledged - are often minimised by those in favour of the bilingual method, while those who oppose bilingual education typically question the educational method as such (and not to the circumstances that might prevent it from being implemented in a better way). Studies conducted with a view to determine whether bilingual education benefits deaf students have been primarily concerned with the nature of the relation of sign language and literacy skills in the spirit of Cummins’ (1979) Interdependence hypothesis. Research concomitant to the bilingual programme in Hamburg marks an exception, as it was focused on the attainment of text production skills in written German.

The theoretical justification for a bilingual approach to the education of linguistic minority students and deaf students bears some similarities which is the reason why the Interdependence hypothesis has been widely used in the field of deaf education. Basically, it is assumed that the promotion of sign language as a base or primary language in the bilingual education of deaf students is instrumental for their literacy attainment and academic achievements. Apart from the attribution of the status of L1 to a language that is seldom the home language, there is another difference between the acquisition scenarios of deaf and hearing children, namely, that sign languages have no written form that would be used in literacy-related activities. Thus, in this acquisition situation, the notion of transfer or interaction of academic language skills needs to be conceived of independently of ‘print’ which has led to an ongoing controversy about whether or not sign language can facilitate the acquisition of L2 literacy (see Niederberger 2008, Plaza-Pust 2016 for a critical appraisal of the studies undertaken).

On a more general level, beyond the question of whether the Interdependence hypothesis is applicable to the bilingual acquisition scenario of deaf students there is the more fundamental question of whether the hypothesis contributes to the understanding of sign bilingualism in deaf children. Cummins’ hypothesis needs to be understood in the context of a controversy about whether compensatory measures for linguistic minority students should involve the promotion of the L1 at all (Paradis, Genesee, & Crago 2011). In this respect, it has the merit of drawing attention to the circumstance that learning content matter while learning the language is to the disadvantage of the learners. Cummins’ hypothesis, however, does not account for bilingual language development, nor does it account for how multilingual knowledge is organised. Neither does it really explain how academic language skills are actually developed and used in a multilingual teaching/learning context. The identification of the dimensions of language interaction in the organisation of multilingual knowledge requires a distinction of different levels of linguistic analysis that needs to be based on a sound theory of language. Language used for academic purposes does not constitute a monolithic skill but rather involves the choice of particular registers, syntactic structures, and discursive means, all of which are specific to a given language. These language-specific characteristics must all be learned (Gogolin 2009; Paradis et al. 2011; Schleppengrell & O’Hallaron 2011). Hence, it comes as no surprise that the development of literacy skills represents a protracted development, even in L1 acquisition.

What the preceding observations make apparent is that educational models of bilingualism, such as the one implicit in Cummins’ hypothesis, involve a global picture of the linguistic and educational needs of bilingual learners. Positive correlations of sign language and oral language skills have been used to argue that “deaf children benefit from early exposure to a natural sign language for their literacy development” (Niederberger 2008: 45). However, as we have pointed out elsewhere the correlations documented do not provide any direct information about a causal relationship between skills attained in the two languages (Pla- za-Pust 2014; 2016). In other words, assumptions about a facilitating effect of the knowledge of one language (that is, sign language) on the attainment of another (that is, oral language) remain tentative so long as the nature of the interaction (elements linked, direction of the relation) remains unaccounted for.

The interest in clarifying the question about the impact of bilingualism on bilingual deaf learners’ literacy skills is understandable against the backdrop of the ongoing debate in the field about whether or not bilingualism, and by extension bilingual education, is for the benefit of deaf learners. It is important to note, however, that a cross-disciplinary perspective is required to understand the complex interplay of internal and external variables that determines the development of sign bilingualism at the individual and societal levels. Issues that need to be addressed from a developmental linguistics perspective concern deaf children’s bilingual development of a sign language and an oral language. What are the main milestones in the development of either language? Do bilingual deaf learners use the linguistic resources available in a creative manner, as it has been found to be the case of their hearing peers? What types of language contact phenomena occur in this type of bilingual language acquisition and what do they reveal about the development in both languages? Questions like these concern the dynamics implicit to the organisation of multilingual knowledge. Their clarification, as we shall see in the following chapters, requires theoretically based analyses that will also allow us to discern commonalities and differences between different types of bilingual language acquisition.

Having sketched the environmental conditions that determine the path toward bilingualism in deaf individuals, we turn next to the bilingual acquisition of a sign language and an oral language in deaf learners, the competences they attain, and the mechanisms that underlie their bilingual development.

  • [1] See Krausneker 2008 for Austria, Morales-Lopez 2008 for Spain, Yang 2008 for China, Arditoet al. 2008 for Italy, and Plaza-Pust 2016 for a summary of the developments in Germany.
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