The changing status of sign language in deaf education

External factors, notably education, gain a crucial significance in the path toward bilingualism of deaf individuals. Because of the rather infrequent parent-to-child sign language transmission pattern and the unequal accessibility of the languages involved supportive measures are necessary for the promotion of either language in deaf learners. The bilingual promotion of deaf students is a relatively new phenomenon in deaf education. First established in the 1980s, sign bilingual education programmes have been implemented in various countries throughout the last decades. Today, sign bilingual education, though consolidated as an option in the education of deaf students, continues to represent the exception rather than the norm. The inclusion of sign language remains controversial and vulnerable to developments in the sociopolitical and medical areas.

To understand the relevance of sign bilingual education programmes as well as the factors that work against a more widespread distribution of the bilingual option in deaf education it is necessary to examine the developments leading to the implementation of these programmes in the late 20th century. Further, current challenges and future perspectives need to be elaborated on the basis of a critical appraisal of how sign bilingual education is put into practice.

Deaf education, as historical records make apparent, has been divided from its beginnings between the aim of catering for the specific needs and abilities of deaf children and the objective of remedying hearing loss (cf. Plaza-Pust 2016).

Over the centuries, views about deaf individuals and their education have changed, influenced by developments in the society at large pertaining to (a) changes in the understanding of the relation of the individual and the surrounding society, affecting also conceptions of disability, as well as to (b) socio-economic and socio-political changes leading to the establishment of educational institutions in charge of children’s socialisation into a common cultural world.

By the end of the 19th century, as became apparent in our sketch of the main developments in the history of deaf education, education reached many more deaf children than it had been the case ever before. Other changes pertained to the people and institutions in charge, the languages used for instruction and the language skills promoted. In our discussion of the main changes in the evolution of deaf education we remarked on two major shifts of perspective. Beginning with a focus on the teaching of the written language, the early history of deaf education is marked by a change of perspective upon the dissociation of deafness and dumbness toward an emphasis on speech and spoken language development in deaf students. The second major shift of focus from vision to audition is reflected in the orientation toward unisensory (auditory-verbal) approaches to deaf education. The recognition that only few deaf individuals suffer a complete hearing loss, and advances in the development of hearing aid technology furthered the spread of auditory-verbal approaches.

A second major strand pertains to the changing status of signs and sign language in the teaching of deaf students. Manual means of communication, in particular in the form of manual alphabets, had been used by the first known teachers of deaf students. Later, sign language was considered as the natural language of deaf individuals by de l’Epee and the professionals who worked in his tradition. However, the use of sign language in the teaching of deaf students was rejected by advocates of the oralist approach, for whom deaf education was exclusively oriented toward the promotion of the spoken language.

Manualism and oralism, the two educational philosophies that emerged as of the late 18th century and were discussed throughout the 19th century continue to determine the field of deaf education today. The resolution passed at the congress held in Milan in 1880, in which the use of signs in the education of deaf students was rejected, paved the way for the predominance of oralism which prevails today. Throughout the 20th century, the oralists’ rationale and infrastructure, covering the medical and educational areas, have worked towards the exclusion of sign language in deaf education, thereby denying the majority of deaf individuals the opportunity to become bilingual and to develop dynamic and diverse affiliations in distinct communities, as it is known to be the case of other bilingual individuals. What is more, unisensory approaches have gone so far as to deprive deaf children from the maximal use of all their senses by exclusively promoting their listening potential. The use of sign language is rejected upfront by pointing to alleged negative effects it would have on the development of deaf children in different domains: sign language would not only affect deaf children’s social development (by alienating them from the hearing society), and their oral language development (because it would become their predominant means of communication), but also their brain organisation (owing to the competition of resources in the processing of visual and auditory input). Although these arguments are empirically unfounded, they continue to be used in the ongoing campaigning against a bilingual promotion of deaf students (cf. Plaza-Pust 2016).

As for the outcomes of monolingual oral education, there is a continuing discrepancy between the expectations raised at the programmatic level and the results obtained (cf. Plaza-Pust 2016). Despite rather modest results, the monolingual oralist rhetoric continues to perpetuate the myth of a deaf child that can be turned into a hearing child through oralist education and medical intervention. Despite the ideological power of oralist discourse, the longstanding monopoly of monolingual oralist education was broken in the late 20th century with the implementation of sign bilingual education programmes in several countries.

Before we turn to bilingual education conceptions a note is due on so-called total communication approaches which involve the use of (natural and artificial) signs in combination with speech, to represent oral language elements. By emphasising the relevance of communication for the child’s emotional, cognitive, linguistic, and social development, the TC approach constitutes a child-centred approach that departs radically from monolingual oralist approaches exclusively oriented toward remedying hearing loss. With a focus on the communicative needs and abilities of deaf children, the core tenet of this educational approach, as the notion of total communication suggests, is that all means of communication should be used in the interaction with the deaf child. Advocates of the TC approach justify the use of signs as a means to improve communication in the classroom. Further, the simultaneous use of signs in combination with speech is assumed to make it easier for the deaf child to learn the oral language, and, hence, to enhance deaf children’s literacy skills. It is also assumed to help improve parent-child communication, in particular, between hearing parents and their children.

It is important to note that the TC approach, though multisensory, is monolingual in orientation as the attainment of the oral language is the main objective. From the perspective of developmental linguistics, it is important to consider the discrepancy between the benefit attributed to simultaneous communication (to enhance the attainment of the oral language) and the function it ultimately serves, namely, that of a hybrid communication medium. This discrepancy makes apparent that communication systems are often confounded with natural lan?guages, in particular, in the educational domain, where the lack of success of this method is generally attributed to inconsistency and variability in the use of mixed systems. From a developmental linguistics perspective, however, the incongruity of the input learners are exposed to raises concerns about the learning problems this might pose. Signed systems do not simply duplicate the spoken language in another modality. Not only are these systems inconsistent with the way spatial languages work. What is more critical is that their use leads to paradoxical learning situations as it requires knowledge of the languages whose acquisition they are supposed to enhance.

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