Tracing the sources of deaf learner errors

Theoretically based accounts distinguish several internal and external sources of the errors identified in deaf learners’ written productions (Wilbur 1987, 2000; Berent 1996). As the types of deviances encountered are similar to rule-based errors (i.e. omissions or overgeneralisations) found in learner grammars of other (hearing) L2 learners (Wilbur 2000: 83), it is assumed that they are developmen?tally constrained. However, the characteristic long-term persistence of these errors is reminiscent of the plateau or fossilisation effects observed in those second language learners who do not make a progress beyond a rudimentary L2 competence. For further illustration consider example (395) (from Leuninger 2007: 158, our translation), a text produced by an orally educated adult deaf individual with little knowledge of sign language. Without going into the details of the numerous errors in this sequence what becomes apparent is that meanings are expressed through a concatenation of formulae and chunks (or only parts thereof).

(395) Hallo frau k y. fragt dich zu zeit in p. machen wann treffen wir uns im buro mit sprechen. ich wunsche verschiedene beruf finden. Nur gut spass arbeit. aber jetzt viele arbeitslose machen. Ich hoffe dir auf bitte antwort. ich bin viele zeit. ok. viele lieber gruss von yk. (Handy-Fax einer Gehorlosen mit wenig Gebardensprache) [Hello Mrs K y asks you to time in p make when meet we us in office with talk. I wish different job find. Only good fun work. But now many unemployed make. I hope you on please answer. I am many time. ok. Many dear greeting from yk. (Mobile-fax from a deaf person with little sign language)]

Rudimentary written language skills as they become apparent in (395) can be taken as an indication that the development of the written language by deaf students might be delayed or truncated due to (a) a restricted quantity of language input available to them, and (b) a deficit in the quality of the input they are exposed to in the classroom.

Berent (1996: 469), highlighting both the qualitative and the quantitative differences between written language input and spoken language input remarks also on the lack of spontaneous communication when he states that “[p]rinted language also does not serve as a satisfactory substitute for spoken language input, because the ability to read a language, which takes several years to develop, presupposes knowledge of that language, and because natural, spontaneous communication in a language does simply not occur through reading and writing.” What these observations also make apparent is that written language cannot substitute the acquisition of a fully accessible first language during the sensitive period for language acquisition (which would amount to sign language acquisition in deaf learners). Further, Berent (1996: 471) notes that with the exception of those children exposed to sign language from birth, deaf students’ oral language acquisition scenario is best characterised as “L1,5 acquisition” because the acquisition of the language, only partially developed as an L1, is bound to formal instruction as an L2. The situation is markedly different from the acquisition scenario of bilingually educated deaf students who attain written language in addition to L1 sign language.

Apart from quantity and timing there is also the issue of the quality of the input provided. There is a consensus among advocates of bilingual education that the traditional teaching of written language structures in isolation with a focus on formal correctness (ibid.; Gunther et al. 2004; Schafke 2005) occurs at the expense of a creative use of language which would allow deaf children to acquire subtle grammatical and pragmatic properties (cf. also Leuninger et al. 2003). What is more, we might assume that, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the lack of a creative language usage comes as no surprise given that traditionally low expectations of a successful mastery combine well with the secondary status attributed to the written language. The neglected promotion of the written language in deaf education differs markedly from more recent conceptions developed in the context of bilingual education programmes discussed in section 1.3.2. One crucial component of the didactic measures adopted for literacy promotion in bilingual programmes, as is the case of the one established in Hamburg, pertains to the focus on an early reception and production of written texts. By developing a narrative culture in the classroom, learners are given the opportunity to narrate their own stories. Further, they also learn about their benefit from their use of the written language in their everyday lives.

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