Stories create who we are and define how we understand our shared humanity. Melissa Malzkuhn speaks on her work championing literacy in the deaf community, her family history with storytelling, and gives an introduction to American Sign Language.
Comparing the sign differences between American Sign Language & Crow Sign Language Flarin Big Lake is a member of the Crow Tribe. Flarin is the last Deaf Deaf person in Crow Tribe who uses Crow Sign Language (language variety of Plains Sign Language). He kindly emphasizes PISL is not a nationwide native sign language. It’s used in the plains area – Crow, Cheyenne, Flathead, Rocky Boy, etc.
CSD’s Distance Learning Program explained.
Director of Instruction Len Gonzales gives a presentation during the Advisory Commission on Special Education meeting on October 21, 2020.
Like all babies, Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HoH) babies learn language best in natural situations with people who care about them and know them. All parents have natural instincts about how to interact with their babies, how to show them love, and how to communicate, even before babies can understand and use language.
Deaf parents emphasize some communication behaviours more than most hearing parents, and these behaviours are very helpful for Deaf and HH babies. When hearing parents include these behaviours with their Deaf and HoH babies, babies pay attention better and learn language earlier.
FREQUENT, POSITIVE COMMUNICATION WITH YOUR BABY HELPS LANGUAGE DEVELOP FASTER
Needs: Developing strong, positive bonds with parents and caregivers is crucial for babies, and this happens naturally when parents respond to their baby’s needs. Smiles, gentle touches, and games like peek-a-boo strengthen bonds between babies and parents and are a natural way to communicate.
Senses: Hearing parents naturally raise the pitch of their voices and use a lot of rhythm and a sing-song way of speaking when talking to babies. They also gesture, matching their hand movements with word rhythms, use exaggerated, happy facial expressions. They also touch their babies often by stroking the baby’s face, arms, and legs, and sometimes make “bicycle” movements with the baby’s legs. All of these behaviours are important because they communicate with babies using more than one sense: vision, sound, touch. All of these behaviours are important for Deaf and HoH babies too: they can receive messages through senses other than hearing.
Deaf parents don’t use speech as much as hearing parents, but they emphasize the other senses more. They repeat signed messages and make the movements “dance” with rhythm. They stroke and touch their babies more often and frequently make signs on the baby’s body. For example, one Deaf mother of a three-month old signed “Pretty baby” by making the sign “pretty” on the baby’s face while smiling and watching her baby, smiling even brighter when the baby smiled back.
Babies love these exaggerated expressions: they watch, imitate, smile, and laugh. Exaggerated, positive gestures and signs make Mommy interesting to watch, and baby learns that it is pleasant and important to watch Mommy.
If hearing parents include these behaviours with their Deaf and HoH babies, their communication will be more interesting and it will be easier to keep baby’s attention.
Notice where baby looks and talk about it: Babies are more interested in communicating when they decide the “topic.” Language learning happens better when parents sign/talk about an object or activity that baby is interested in. Babies and children whose mothers respond to or follow their interests develop language faster than those whose mothers change the topic frequently, whether the baby is Deaf, HoH, or hearing.
For example, if baby picks up a toy truck, it’s better to sign/say, “Oh, a truck. You want to play with the truck?” rather than, “Let’s play with this doll instead.”
Responding to baby is natural when parents are encouraged to simply play and communicate, not act as “teachers.” Changing topics or redirecting the conversation is effective sometimes with older children, but not with babies and toddlers.
Pay attention to arm, leg, and body movements: When playing with and responding to your baby, it’s important to notice their movements. Researchers have noticed that Deaf and HoH babies move their arms and legs more often than hearing babies. One hearing mother thought her baby was hyperactive, but a Deaf mother thought her baby was trying to sign. Regardless, it’s important to respond to your baby as if their movements are meaningful so that your baby understands they have a way to communicate and get your attention.
Respect baby’s right to stop playing or communicating: Just like adults, babies need “down time.” When tired or over-excited, babies will often look away from the communication and lose their happy expression. The best response is to wait quietly for a short time to see if baby restarts the communication.
HELP BABY SEE THE COMMUNICATION AND LANGUAGE THAT YOU USE Move your hand or body so that baby can see your communication while looking at a toy or activity: In their early months, babies spend a lot of time watching the person communicating/playing with them. By 5-6 months, most babies become interested in objects, exploring them by looking at and moving them, and babies spend less time looking directly at the people communicating with them. For Deaf and HoH babies, this time is a special challenge because they need to see communication in order to understand.
One good strategy with young babies is to move your hands to sign or gesture on or near something that baby is looking at. That way, baby can see your communication without having to look away from the object or activity.
If babies look up at their mother after she has signed near the object, Deaf mothers make the sign again. This way, baby learns to switch their attention from the object, to Mommy, to the object again. However, this skill can take time for babies to develop, sometimes not until 13 months or later.
Move the object in front of baby, then in front of your face – when baby can see both, communicate: Deaf mothers do this often. It works best when Mommy moves an object Mommy and baby have been playing with together, because Mommy can use language that responds to the baby’s interests.
Tap on the object a few times before communicating about it, then show the sign for the object (e.g. “ball”), then tap on it again to allow the child to connect the object with the sign.
Tap on baby to say “Look at me”: Deaf mothers gently tap or pat their baby’s shoulders, arms, and legs with a flat hand to signal to baby to look up for communication. Babies whose mothers use it often had better sign language skills at 18 months and two years of age.
However, babies don’t understand this signal at first: they have to learn that it means, “Look at me.” Deaf mothers usually combine tapping with other communication strategies. For example, one mother tapped her baby’s shoulder, then rubbed baby’s leg, placed an object in front of baby and then near her face while tapping baby’s shoulder again. This baby learnt the meaning of tapping before 18 months and then would look up quickly when lightly tapped.
It can be difficult to know how to use tapping with an individual baby. Some babies seem resistant, while others respond quickly. Be sensitive to your baby’s personality. There are no rules, so hearing mothers can benefit from seeing how Deaf adults use it with babies.
Relax and wait for baby to respond on her own: Wait, then quickly sign or say something to your baby. This can require patience because some babies don’t often look up. But if Mommy communicates in an interesting and responsive way when baby does look up, it encourages baby to do it more in the future.
GRADUALLY CHANGE YOUR COMMUNICATION TO MAKE BABY’S TRANSITION TO LANGUAGE EASIER
When baby shows they are beginning to understand language, start using short sentences, plus pointing at/tapping objects: Deaf and hearing parents both do the same thing: when baby begins to show signs of understanding language, parents naturally begin to use simple sentences that model language for their children. Eventually begin to use longer sentences as baby understands more and produces more language herself.
Repeat words, signs, short sentences, and tap objects and point to activities: This gives baby several chances to notice the signs and recognize language patterns.
You can use fingerspelling: Although it seems difficult, Deaf parents use fingerspelling, even with babies. Occasional short words can be the first step to learning about letters and can later help with learning to read.
CONCLUSION Hearing parents naturally communicate in ways that are as effective for Deaf babies as hearing babies. However, Deaf parents emphasize some strategies that are really helpful for Deaf and HoH babies. When hearing parents add these strategies, they give babies a strong start on language learning.
What does monolingualism mean?
Being monolingual means knowing one language. Many people who grow up in Canada may be monolingual and know only English or French. In contrast, many Deaf Canadians may be bilingual because they use two or more languages, for instance, they might use ASL and the written form of English.
What does semilingualism mean?
In order to become fluently bilingual, with strong language skills in two languages, a child must have early access to a first language or “mother tongue”, preferably from birth. When children are given late, infrequent or inadequate exposure to two or more languages, they may become semilingual rather than bilingual. When a child is semilingual they seem to not have a full grasp of any language, and tend to mix the vocabulary, grammar and structure of the two languages together so that the child may not be fully able to express themselves in any language. In order to reap the benefits of being bilingual, a child must be given the opportunity to develop a strong first language.
What does semilingualism mean for Deaf children?
Since more than 90% of Deaf children are born into hearing families who may not know ASL, it is crucial for parents to make the extra effort so that Deaf children are exposed to a signed language (ASL) as early as possible in order to have a strong first language that is visual and 100% accessible. By being given frequent and consistent exposure to ASL through communication with family members, videos, and socializing with other Deaf children, a first language can develop which is the first step to developing strong language and critical thinking skills. By having ASL as a first language, it will be easier to acquire English because the child already has knowledge of language structure and has the ability to connect ideas. Without frequent exposure to ASL and with only limited access to English (since the child does not have full access to spoken English), the child is in danger of never fully acquiring either ASL or English and becoming semilingual. By making the effort to expose your child to ASL as frequently and as early as possible, your child can thrive and learn how to communicate in two languages- ASL and English.
Language is a natural system of communication that a group of people use to express thoughts, feelings, ideas – to talk about themselves and the world. Language can be spoken, like English, or signed, like American Sign Language (ASL).
Literacy is usually thought of as the ability to read and write. However, there is more to it than that. To be literate means, “to be educated or cultured” and literacy is “having or showing extensive knowledge, experience or culture”. A literate person is able to participate fully in society – more than simply being able to read and write, a literate person can fulfill social, civic, and economic roles.
Researchers have identified three levels of literacy: functional literacy, cultural literacy, and critical literacy.
Functional literacy: this refers to the ability to understand and use printed information in everyday life. A functionally literate person can use their reading and writing skills to achieve their goals. For example, job applications and medical forms can be understood and filled out.
Cultural literacy: this refers to the shared knowledge and information that members of a culture share. It includes knowledge about literature and history – even jokes – and it allows people to participate in the cultural and political life of their communities. For example, a culturally literate Canadian likely understands references to Anne of Green Gables, Terry Fox, and Victoria Day.
Critical literacy: this refers to the ability to think critically about messages, whether they are spoken, written, or signed. A critically literate person can understand the not-so-obvious perspectives and messages that books, movies, newspapers, and other media contain. A critically literate person can analyze, question, reflect on, and disagree with these perspectives and messages, and can respond with their own ideas. For example, a person with critical literacy can question why a movie portrays a female character as weak, a black character as violent, or a Deaf character as stupid.
Literacy in ASL and English: For Deaf children, literacy in ASL and English involves all three levels so that they are able to:
Deaf children develop healthy self-esteem and a positive attitude towards literature and reading when they see themselves in stories, as in Deaf heritage literature – written in English, with Deaf characters and experiences.ASL literature includes stories, poems, legends, riddles, and humour told in ASL. It is based on the thoughts, emotions, and lived experiences of Deaf people. Because ASL is an unwritten language, its literary tradition is similar to that of oral cultures from all over the world, passed down from one generation to another. Now, ASL literature can be found recorded on DVDs, film, and the Internet.
While children can develop language skills naturally and easily if they are regularly exposed to accessible communication – for Deaf children, signed language is the only language fully accessible to them – literacy skills require time, effort, and encouragement to develop. The rewards, though, make the effort worth it: literate children become independent adults capable of thinking about themselves and their world.
The Benefits of Bilingualism: Impacts on Language and Cognitive Development:
Bilingualism can be briefly defined as someone who regularly uses two languages. According to researcher Franḉois Grosjean (who studies American Sign Language cognitive processing), bilingualism is the norm throughout most of the world. The proficiency levels between the two languages can vary throughout someone’s lifetime based on how much they use the language.
Many Deaf people are fluent in a signed language as well as a spoken or written form of a spoken language; because of this, it is probable that bilingualism is more common with Deaf individuals than hearing individuals. Proficiency in the two languages depends on the level of proficiency needed for the context (for example, is the language used solely at home or solely at school? This will result in different vocabulary). Proficiency will also depend on when the language was acquired.
Learning two languages is a very natural process for children, and it does not result in or cause cognitive or linguistic delays. A child learning two languages is able to achieve all the same milestones as a child who is learning only one language – everything from babbling to acquiring grammatical structures. This includes children who are learning American Sign Language (ASL) and English.
The most obvious benefit of being bilingual is the ability to communicate in two languages. It is beneficial to learn these two languages as early as possible in your life. Vocabulary is acquired easier and more quickly in both languages for people who are bilingual. In addition, managing two languages has cognitive benefits such as a better ability to pay attention, better control of impulses, better conflict resolution skills, and increased working memory.
Deaf children can greatly benefit from going to a bilingual school because if they have high proficiency in ASL, they may also have high proficiency in English and improved academic achievement. By exposing Deaf children to ASL, they are able to develop skills such as critical thinking and complex reasoning which can help their second language literacy development.
It is beneficial to use ASL when your Deaf child is present, not only when you are directly communicating with them. This means exposure to different types of conversations such as arguments, small talk, and communication between different age groups. Using English with your Deaf child by reading books and translating them into ASL shows that communication can be in both languages and helps them to understand how both languages work.