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From:  Rebecca Larche Moreton
Date:  Thu Oct 19, 2000  8:46 pm
Subject:  Re: SW-L Digest - 18 Oct 2000 to 19 Oct 2000


I did not make myself clear, in my comments about the Newsweek article
which equated "lack of English" with "lack of language": I did not mean
that I expected hearing parents who find that their child cannot hear,
should be the ones who provide access to ASL for that child during the
early childhood years when s/he needs to be exoposed to a human language
in order to develop his/her own language ability normally. I am a teacher
of foreign language and a linguist, and I know how long it takes for
adults to learn any "foreign" language, much less one which uses a
modality from speech, such as ASL or another signed language. What I
intended to convey was my outrage that the parents, who are not experts on
hearing difficulties or on child language learning, were apparently led to
believe that a cochlear implant would render their child's hearing good
enough for the child to learn English as her first language. It did not
work in this case, and by the time they realized that, the child was
beyond the optimum age for first language acquisition. At the very least,
along with an implant, the child should have been able to attend a
preschool program for Deaf children in which the teachers regularly used
ASL, so that she would develop a usable language. I know the arguments for
focussing only on English; to me, they do not hold water. What results in
many cases is that a deaf child does not acquire English (not surprising,
since one acquires a spoken language by HEARING it spoken around one and
by gradually tuning in to the system; if you cannot access the sounds, how
can you learn the spoken language? It would be like expecting a person
kept in a dark room to learn to see colors, without ever having seen them.
That some non-hearing people
DO learn to use a spoken language is amazing, as Nancy Cole points out),
while at the same time the early childhood years are essentially lost for
normal language acquisition. How much better would it be if every deaf
child learned at minimum one signed language, which in the U.S. would
usually be ASL, so that that child HAD a syntax, HAD a real human language
which he or she controlled. Then training in a second language could
begin, and the first language would serve as the medium for the learning
of the second one. If the parents are skilled users of ASL, they are of
course the best teachers for the very young child; but most parents of
deaf children do not also already know ASL, and it does take them many
years to become good users of this, for them, new language. Why, then, are
there not nursery schools specially set up for children with severe
hearing difficulties, in which the teachers are Deaf users of ASL who
quite unselfconsciously employ ASL in their normal daily activities? It
would not be too long before the child in the family would be in effect
teaching the parents ASL, and everybody would benefit.

And yes, SignWriting could be used to help teach ASL to hearing parents
(and to others who wanted to learn a new language for whatever reason),
and SignWriting could be the first reading that Deaf children who have
learned ASL would encounter.(Yes, many words in ASL are finger-spelled
words; a small child would learn this technique easily, even before he
could read written letters or write them, and before he knew any English
pre se at all. A sign is a sign to a person who is learning a manual
language as his first language, just as a spoken word is a spoken word to
a person who is learning a vocal language as his first language; little
children don't argue with the structure of their first language, they just
soak it up.)

Beyond all that, my criticism of the NewsWeek article is that none of
these facts are addressed. The child mentioned did not learn English when
she was very tiny, and for a very good reason, that is, she could not hear
it. Because of having missed the earliest stages of language development,
the article implies that she does not now have a good command of any
language. And this is going to pose a difficulty for her as she continues
in school, as the ideas taught become more complicated. Whereas, had she
learned ASL, she would have A language to use, in which things could be
explained to her. And she could also learn ANOTHER language, which for her
would most likely be English, so that she could also use written English
as a means of studying school subjects. If you have skipped the first
step, that is, learning A language as a small child, then the school
language may never be accessible to you in a useful way.

We have a long way to go if we are still willing for
a child to miss the opportunity, at the right time in his/her
development, to develop the human inborn language potential. A signed
language serves just as well as a spoken language, for the model to which
a child must be exposed in order to develop this language potential.

The structure of ASL and the structure of English are quite different
from each other; in
fact, the structure of every language is different from that of every
other language (otherwise we would not speak of different languages; they
would all be the same language). Learning one language structure at a very
early age does NOT prevent one from learning another structure, or several
other structures, later on. So, a person who learns ASL, or Russian, or
Swahili as a small child, can later on also learn French, or Navajo, or
English, or Brazilian Sign Language, or all of these, as second or third,
etc., languages. To say that a person who speaks only Navajo has a "syntax
deficit" or a "language deficit" is incorrect: that person may have an
ENGLISH deficit if s/he lives in a country where English is the most
widespread language used, or a" FRENCH deficit" if s/he lives where French
is the most
important language, or an "INDONESIAN deficit" where Indonesian is most
important. And that Indonesian--monolingual may well want to learn
English, or French or Navajo, as a second language, for economic or other
practical reasons. But there is nothing
"wrong" with that person just because his/her first language is not
English! He or she may
be inconvenienced to a greater or lesser degree by knowing only one
language, but he has LANGUAGE and A LANGUAGE, both, and thus there is no
cognitive deficit. The deaf child who has not learned to use a human
language, on the other hand, whether vocal or manual, may well have a
"language deficit"
which will hamper him/her because it makes learning by means of language
very hard to accomplish. While a child who knows ASL can study any school
subject by means of ASL. And he can study English also, by means of ASL.

I just think a national magazine can do better in explaining important
educational matters, than Newsweek did in implying that there is no
alternative, either you cannot hear and you must have a surgical procedure
to permit you to hear, so that you can learn a language normally as a
child, OR if you don't have the procedure done or if the procedure does
not give you good hearing, then you will never develop your language
potential properly. They should have at least mentioned known alternatives
which can lead to a better outcome.

(Rebecca Larche Moreton)
301 South Ninth Street
Oxford, MS 38655


  Replies Author Date
4065 New SymbolBank Databases Online Valerie Sutton Sat  10/28/2000
4066 Programmers: SymbolBank file number 4 posted Valerie Sutton Sun  10/29/2000

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