Language is fundamental for social interaction, personal development and abstract thinking.  For the majority of people, acquiring a language during childhood occurs unconsciously, automatically and mostly naturally. Every individual develops an internal set of language rules based on communicating with others who use the same language. Language development is thus a creative process that requires a child to actively process the information he or she receives. As we now know, hearing children get this information by hearing spoken language in natural interaction with other people in the environment, not through imitation or training.

For the child born deaf, this is not so. Of all the barriers to learning that Deaf children face, that of access to natural language is the most important.

This statement may be puzzling until one considers the situation of most children born deaf. Sign Language – a visual language – is the most natural language for a Deaf child and this is rarely learned from those who surround young Deaf children. It is most often introduced only when they attend school, and there they learn it primarily from other children, not from experienced adult users of Sign Language. Spoken language is no alternative since it remains largely inaccessible to these children: they cannot hear speech and thus cannot easily reproduce it. Consequently, neither the complex structures nor nuances of tone and meaning of spoken language are available to Deaf and severely hard-of-hearing children. Quite simply, speech gives them too little visual information, hence making the linguistic information being expressed incomplete.

A spoken language – English, for example – is structured according to how the sounds of speech are produced. This is then formalised into a system of writing also dependent on knowledge of the sounds of the language. Sign Language is very different: it has a structure that allows simultaneously produced information and is produced not just with the hands, but also uses three-dimensional space, directionality, facial expression and bodily movement. Everything is adapted to how the eye perceives linguistic information.

To further complicate the world of learning for the Deaf child, Sign Language is not written, so it is necessary for Deaf children to master both the national Sign Language (in South Africa this is South African Sign Language (SASL)) and a native spoken language in its written form. In other words, Deaf children must necessarily become bilingual, not in the usual sense but in the differing and dual modes of a signed system and a written system. Bilingualism, the ability to competently switch between the two languages, increases a Deaf individual’s ability to participate in society.

There are several ways in which technology plays a part in language.

New developments in information technology and internet have transformed communication and cultural possibilities for users of sign languages through text message options, and video communication options.

Another way in which technology impacts deaf children has been in sound-related devices that mediate environmental sounds/vibrations such as hearing aids and cochlear implants.  The effectiveness of these devices is frequently oversimplified and overestimated.  The myth that children with access to early intensive medical and speech training interventions do not need access to spontaneous visual language acquisition as well, continue to deprive deaf children of equal access to language development.  Worse, there are still programmes in which deaf children are intentionally prevented from learning sign language.  In the highly individual responses to (and high cost of) most of this technology, learning their national Sign Language remains the most essential need for Deaf children.

Find out more:

(Click on each title to follow the link)

Language through Deaf eyes – British Academy on 12 May 2017. Speaker: Professor Bencie Woll FBA, University College London

Ava age 5 – breakfast conversation in BSL

Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto, co-PI and scientific director of the National Science Foundation Science of Learning Center, VIsual Language and Visual Learning, VL2, speaks about early language acquisition and bilingualism at the Gallaudet Research Expo on March 24, 2016    See more about the research here. 

World Federation of the Deaf website

 WFD Position Paper on the Language Rights of Deaf Children