Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Sign language disappearing?

Students sign at St. Joseph's School for the Deaf in the Bronx.
Photo by Ann Weathersby, New York magazine.

Lou Ann Walker wrote an interesting article in New York magazine for its Jan. 21-28 double issue on Peace + Quiet, looking at how sign language may be experiencing a downturn because of the growing use of cochlear implants for babies and children with hearing impairments. She went to the St. Joseph School for the Deaf in the Bronx to investigate language changes the school is seeing among its students.

As the hearing daughter of deaf parents, sign language is Walker's first language. What she found at St. Joseph's is that the parents of kids with cochlear implants are hesitant to have their children gain fluency in American Sign Language (ASL). She writes, "Many parents are resistant to letting children with implants learn ASL; teachers are discouraged from using it, with oral and lip-reading instruction now favored. More deaf children are being mainstreamed into public-school classrooms. But not all children succeed with implants, and if they are unable to acquire enough tools to communicate, they fall behind. The battles over ASL are not so much about the absence of hearing as about the presence of a language."

Her article goes on to explore the debate over oralism, which encourages deaf children to speak verbally and lip-read rather than sign. She makes an excellent argument for the importance of sign language for a deaf child's development, especially in the area of visual creativity that sign emphasizes.

Walker is the author of several books about deafness -- A Loss for Words: The Story of Deafness in a Family (1987), Hand, Heart, and Mind: The Story of the Education of America's Deaf People (1994), and the children's book, Amy, the Story of a Deaf Child.

It's wonderful to see Walker bring her expertise about the education of deaf people to a general interest magazine like New York. Sign language is the lynchpin in the development of deaf culture in America, so its existence remains vital. Walker explains that the debate on how to best educate deaf children shouldn't be an either-or situation: "As someone who lives in the world of words and signs, I support whatever will give a child as much language as possible. I am for cochlear implants and I am for sign language. I wish so many people didn’t see those two as mutually exclusive. "

Ironically, while the debate rages in deaf education circles, sign language appears to be gaining popularity in the hearing world. Students are taking sign for their "foreign language" requirement at some schools, and hearing parents are teaching their hearing babies sign, because infants have the hand dexterity to sign before their vocal cords have the ability to speak. Here's a parenting site article about it.

The actress Jennifer Beals mentioned on "The View" in January that she began teaching her baby sign language at 4 months. She has been reunited with her long-time friend, deaf actress, Marlee Matlin, on seasons 4 and 5 of "The L Word," which led to Beals revitalizing her own signing skills. Even the toddler actor that "The L Word" is using to play Beals' daughter on the show is signing. Thanks Marlee for bringing more sign language to TV!