Deaf Children and Bilingualism

Last week I was invited to represent the Maltese Sign Language Council (Kunsill tal-Lingwa tas-Sinjali Maltija), together with my colleague Mr George Vella, to participate in the celebrations of the first ever International Day of Sign Languages, held at the United Nations Office at Geneva. We went with Hon. Anthony Agius Decelis, the Parliamentary Secretary for Persons with Disability and Active Ageing.

The experience was nothing short of amazing. We met with Rachel Shenton, screenwriter, actress and oscar winner of The Silent Child Film, and spoke about sign language, accessibility and inclusion, and how the brilliant film advocates the importance of sign language usage. She is hearing and her British Sign Language (BSL) is really good! We also participated in all the activities, discussed hot topics about sign language during high level panels, met with Deaf experts from other countries, and promoted Maltese Sign Language.

One of the topics we discussed was about deaf children and their accessibility for education. Currently, our main concern is the deaf and hard of hearing children. Parents today wrongly assume that if their deaf or hard of hearing child learns sign language, it will hinder their speech. Many medical professionals are partially to blame, as they are giving this wrong information to parents. Consequently, parents decide that their deaf children do not learn sign language. With such decision, the parents are unknowingly damaging their deaf children’s future. When children learn how to speak, they-still-cannot-hear. It does not matter how good their spoken language gets, these children still cannot access information due to their deafness.

Believe it or not, deaf children are capable of being bilingual. They can learn how to speak and how to sign! Learning both languages would be so valuable for them. Some think that if children learn how to sign, they will be unable to learn how to speak clearly. Yet, if they do not manage to use the spoken language so clearly, it would be due to their deafness and not due to the sign language. And even so.. if these deaf children feel more comfortable expressing themselves in sign language, which is also Deaf people’s natural language, so be it. Why should they be stopped? What makes sign language inferior to the spoken language? Just because sign language is not the language used by the majority, it does not mean that it should not be used. Language deprivation for deaf children should be prevented, and this is possible by embracing sign language.

I must also explain that the structure and grammar of a spoken sentence are different from those of a signed sentence. People mistakenly think that Deaf people do not know how to speak, when in reality they may be using the grammar and structure of sign language, when speaking.

Oh, and did I mention that deaf people who have a cochlear implant would also benefit from using sign language? Having a cochlear implant does not mean that the person can hear like the hearing community. Using sign language would actually be instrumental for those with a cochlear implant, as this way they can have more accessibility to things they are unable to hear clearly. Yup!

I was 6 when I lost my hearing, so I learned the spoken language first. I taught myself how to lipread, and finally started to learn sign language when I was 26 years old. You wouldn’t believe the opportunities I’ve had since I learned sign language, and the improvement in my quality of life. I started to access so much more information, that I cannot get enough! My only regret is that I did not learn sign language when I was young.

I can already see you shaking your heads and saying that it is easy for me to say that children who are born deaf can be bilingual. But first, let me explain further:

  • By the time I was 6 years old, my spoken language using my mother tongue (Maltese) came natural. My writing skills, not so much. My spoken and written English skills, like many other kids at my age, were not so good either. At all. Learning how to speak during the first 6 years of my life had nothing to do with my current excellent writing and speaking skills. So how did I do it? Well, books happened. At the age of 7 or 8, I started reading books, both in Maltese and English. And my love for books meant that my spoken and writing skills improved. Not so much my pronunciation of the words though. To this day, I still mispronounce words due to never hearing them – so I pronounce some words incorrectly by saying them the way I read them (is the word “myth” pronounced as “MIT” or “MYT” ?! )
  • I met with so many professional Deaf people when I was at Geneva, such as Dr. Tatjana Binggeli from the Swiss Federation of the Deaf, Dr. Joseph Murray from the World Federation of the Deaf, and Mr Mark Wheatley from the European Union of the Deaf, amongst others. I also crossed paths with many other Deaf experts during the past 5 years, such as Dr. Humberto Insolera from the European Disability Forum, Dr. Luigi Lerose from the European Network of Sign Language Teachers, and Helga Stevens, a Member of the European Parliament, to name a few. All of whom have a high educational and academic background. Their first language is sign language, yet this did not stop them from achieving a high-status and successful career.
  • In Malta (and Gozo, of course!), the number of Deaf persons who have furthered their education and obtained a diploma or a degree is very low. Moreover, I have yet to meet with Deaf persons who have obtained a Master’s and Doctoral Degrees. This is unacceptable. Deaf people in Malta and Gozo are capable of achieving advanced educational degree levels. Unfortunately, this is not happening due to the lack of resources as well as the lack of awareness. This also means that they do not have high-paying and high-status career opportunities.

Is it really worth sacrificing the child’s education, future, and quality of life, by choosing to teach them the spoken language only, while rejecting sign language? NO! Language acquisition is crucial for everyone, and it is a basic human right. Deaf children need access to sign language from birth.

And for the love of God – make time and read books. Books are the best educators, not just for deaf people but for everyone!

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