Gallaudet’s President Cordano Dispels the Myths of Language Acquisition
Through his tremendous success on the runway and participation in Dancing With the Stars, Nyle DiMarco follows in the footsteps of numerous Gallaudet University alumni who have shown that deaf people can achieve any dream. Admirably, he has seized this moment to advocate for full and equal early access to language for deaf and hard of hearing children through bilingual exposure to American Sign Language (ASL) and English. I wholly endorse his commitment to guaranteeing full access to language.
To parents and professionals, I want to share with you my position on this issue, which is a profoundly important one for Gallaudet and the nation. Research shows too many deaf and hard of hearing children are entering pre-kindergarten with delays as a result of language deprivation. We must focus on research-based approaches that do not create an either-or dichotomy between learning speech and learning language.
DISPELLING THE MYTHS
A small but vocal number of organizations and individuals persistently perpetuate the myth that ASL is not an essential component of language learning for deaf and hard of hearing children. They grossly misrepresent ASL as a “last-choice” option reserved for children who do not develop spoken English. This contributes to creating environments in which language deprivation persists. Research clearly shows this is preventable when we immerse the deaf infant in a language-rich environment that combines the strengths and benefits of both ASL and English.
Research over the past few decades, especially the past 10 years, confirms the importance of language acquisition through visual language and auditory means. Prominent neuroscientists who study early infant brain development have identified deaf children who lack adequate early language exposure as at great risk for later cognitive, learning, language, and reading challenges.
Technology often is promoted as the solution, but decades of research show it is only one small part. The myth persists that cochlear implants and hearing aids make a deaf child “hearing.” These devices are not ears, but tools to facilitate sound perception and speech discrimination. They require months and years of intervention, intensive drilling and training, often at the expense of learning actual language. This lengthy road can also contribute to the child missing opportunities for full, normal exposure to the patterns of language and to achieve milestones vital for healthy language and reading success.
RESEARCH SUPPORTS VISUAL LANGUAGE
There is now a critical mass of basic science discoveries about the biological foundations of human language, reading, and bilingualism. Gallaudet University’s world-class National Science Foundation Science of Learning Center, Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2), which contains the Brain and Language Laboratory for Neuroimaging, both under the direction of distinguished neuroscientist Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto, comprises a large national and international network of cognitive neuroscience and behavioral science researchers. Dr. Petitto and this network have produced an extensive body of scientific research on the benefits of early exposure to visual language.
These discoveries include:
Speech is not privileged in the human brain, but is biologically equivalent to sign language. ASL is processed in the same areas of the brain as spoken English; these key brain areas are not specialized exclusively for sound, but are specialized in processing the patterns on which language is built.
Early exposure to visual language confers significant visual processing advantages and maintains the infant brain’s sensitivity to the language patterns it must experience within the required developmental timeframes.
This exposure does not harm young deaf children or delay spoken language development, but keeps their brains’ language tissue and systems ‘alive’ and propels the acquisition of spoken English.
Early exposure to ASL supports strong English speech skills and better vocabulary and reading skills compared to hearing peers learning only English.
These deaf children have the identical benefits found in children who are bilingual in other languages, including more robust use of the language areas of the brain, enhanced social and interpersonal understanding, and stronger language analysis, reading, and reasoning skills.
Parents of young deaf children who are learning sign language do not need to achieve immediate and full fluency during this timeframe for their children to benefit from early exposure to ASL.
One of the most damaging misconceptions is that the timing of developmental milestones in spoken and signed languages is different, so it is acceptable to delay the child’s opportunity to learn language (ASL). In hundreds of studies over the past 50 years, Dr. Petitto and other researchers have conclusively refuted this myth. Studies show young deaf children exposed to signed languages achieve every milestone on the exact same timetable as young hearing children exposed to spoken languages.
The signed and spoken language timing “windows” are identical.
A wealth of science discoveries show that early exposure to both ASL and English is beneficial for all children. For the young brain, early sign language exposure is as biologically imperative as early spoken language exposure. Language must be made accessible to a deaf child to avoid lifelong consequences for brain development, learning, and higher cognition. The more we engage the deaf child in language-rich ASL/English experiences, the stronger the child’s brain and language skills become.
It is unethical to perpetuate the myth that the critical period, or “window,” for ASL language acquisition is different from that for spoken English. It is also not scientifically sound to advocate for an exclusionary bias toward speech or that spoken language is the only key to future success.
IMPLEMENTING BEST PRACTICES
These misconceptions are incredibly damaging to families who seek accurate information about their options. They also contribute to a system in which families do not have equal access to services that support both ASL and English language acquisition. Information about the benefits of visual learning and bilingualism is frequently withheld from families of children identified through early hearing loss detection and intervention programs. Medical professionals often immediately advise families not to use sign language but to focus only on learning how to talk at the expense of learning language.
This must change. In order for parents to have true options, they must have equal access to ASL and English language services. Antiquated views persist in the healthcare industry, which has justified cochlear implant treatment strategies around the belief that spoken English alone is the key to future success for deaf children. In light of research showing that bilingual learning confers significant language, reading, learning, social, and cognitive benefits, medical professionals and health insurers must require and support ASL and English intervention as part of cochlear implant treatment.
THE FUTURE IS HERE
We are at a new juncture in history, in which the critical mass of scientific discoveries allows us to state conclusively that there is no need to choose between languages – it is better to choose both languages. We now know that the need for ASL has not decreased, but is greater and more urgent than ever in order for deaf children to gain all possible biological, cognitive, and language advantages. Offering a deaf child both ASL and English, spoken and written, is the greatest gift anyone can give to that child, to the child’s family, and to our world.
I look forward to more opportunities to educate the public about language acquisition in all children, particularly deaf and hard of hearing children, using proven, peer-reviewed and published scientific research and data. I am fully committed to Gallaudet’s bilingual approach and its benefits for the numerous students and families we welcome who don’t sign, or are new signers. They thrive through our programs tailored to provide immersive ASL experiences. We see the products of language-rich environments before us in numerous successful Gallaudet alumni, including Nyle DiMarco, a brilliant, beautiful, and articulate young man. I am so proud of how he is representing his alma mater, Gallaudet University, and supporting a vision for the best future for all children in this country.