The Great Sign Language Controversy

Peace, Brother

The very day we learned of Fiona’s deafness I ran out to buy a baby sign language book. Yes, I actually went to a STORE to buy a book. For this job, the Kindle wasn’t going to cut it.

Eliza and I flipped through the various signs and thought to ourselves “this doesn’t look too bad, what great parents we will be!”

Not so fast.

Learning sign language seemed a no-brainer to us, but little did we know we stumbled into a controversy, and the source is our friend the cochlear implant.

The controversy goes something like this: because implants are now an option, many parents believe that sign language is becoming unnecessary. And not just unnecessary, but in fact can be detrimental to learning verbal language. Why? Because signing is “easier” and the child will grow lazy.

The opposing argument is that signing is the natural language of the deaf, denying this training is denying the child a successful integration with the deaf community. In a sense, the child will not fully exist in either world.

More extreme viewpoints even say that the child should not be given a cochlear implant until they are 18, at which time they can make an informed decision for themselves. “Hearing” parents are trying to fix something the deaf community views as not broken.

Here’s a good article that talks about this in more detail.

Our Viewpoint

We’re still new to this and definitely don’t have all the answers, but we clearly have a bias, admittedly colored by being “hearing” parents:

  • There’s no definitive proof signing inhibits language development, provided appropriate effort is applied in their education. In fact in some cases, it actually helps. The key is you have to put the effort in. Here’s an interesting whitepaper.
  • We do feel sign language is important to learn and will be doing so IN ADDITION to verbal language. Its harder, but ideally a “best of both worlds”.
  • If Fiona is eligible, we are ABSOLUTELY doing the cochlear implant, and as early as we can (age 1). We understand the right to choose argument, but in this case we feel the cost of waiting is just too high. 18 years squanders all the key language learning years. She can always choose to turn off the implant when she’s older.

We would love to learn more from those who have been through this, though, on both sides of the issue. We promise to keep an open mind.

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9 thoughts on “The Great Sign Language Controversy

  1. Muriel Lindsay

    The best of both worlds – signing and early as possible implant. I too would be pulled in that direction. I do think signing is a very rich form of expression and especially seems to convey emotions and connection in a powerful way (though so much attention paid to another’s eyes especially). I would love for all children to learn to sign no matter what their hearing is. And . . . having watched videos of people hearing for first time with their implants, clearly, that joy runs deep. See how much Fiona has taught us already!

  2. Anonymous

    Mark you may not remember but Evan had hearing issues when he was young. A specialist diagnosed him with fluid in the ear and he had tubes put in. This meant that the first 2 years of his life he only heard vowels which helped explain his inability to communication. Vowels are the higher pitched sounds that are easier to distinguish. It took him years to get use to the louder sounds once the tubes were put in. Once he started speech it was discovered that he also has a speech disorder called apraxia. This is a when the brain and mouth don’t communicate properly. We used sign language to help communicate with Evan because of his frustration at not being understood while speech specialist and myself worked to help him learn to speak. Evan still can not make certain sounds and his brain is past the point when learning to speak is at its peak. There are sites that tell you when the brain is best for learning to speak certain sounds and this goes up through age 10 or 12. Basically Evan has a Boston accent where r’s are not a priority or 85% intelligibility. I strongly recommend you use sign language while you speak. It will give her the best of both world’s. We were lucky and Evan learned to speak. Not all kids with apraxia get so lucky.

    1. Mark Isham Post author

      Sheri that’s great to hear. I do remember Evan had some ear problems when he was younger, but didn’t realize the extent. Also drives home the fact we should visit more often :-). Nevertheless it’s great everything turned our well in the end, great feedback to hear.

  3. Anonymous

    I agree with y’all. More is better! Why not have the ability to communicate with more people (both verbally and sign)? In some schools here in the great white north they teach ASL as a second or formerly ‘foreign’ language. When we signed in the group homes I worked in, we always spoke and signed the same words.
    And I’d like to point out the safety involved with have a cochlear implant. Fiona may be able to rely on that to hear fire engines/police cars/dogs barking etc.
    And as for fitting into a community. All one has to do is look at the GLB community to see that a community is what you make it and that people are much more accepting than they were even back when we were kids.

    1. Mark Isham Post author

      Yeah very good point Diana. I forget that hearing is so much more then language, a basic survival skill for sure.

  4. Diana

    That was me above, think it is going to take a few try’s to learn what to do!
    See, we are all learning.

  5. Amanda

    I just don’t buy the argument that teaching them sign language would inhibit language development. I mean knowing ANY language is such a great asset for anyone to have! We taught Luke some basic sign language and he still uses it even when he can use the word. Regardless of what the future holds, Fiona will only benefit from being able to communicate through sign language. Could not agree with you more that it would be the best of both worlds! Love all three of you!

  6. Kristi

    There will be debates and controversies in every aspect of the special needs world that you encounter – you will be amazed. Things you never could have imagined would be controversial! You just have to try figure out what is best for Fiona and your family and just ignore the rest.
    I think our situation is obviously very different from yours, but it’s certainly not your “typical” situation either. I would definitely encourage sign language at least in the beginning. Start with the baby sign language. Don’t worry about learning ASL right now. I have seen research (and my own experience) about how much baby sign language helps even typically developing kids communicate. I used it with my older son (who is typical) and it is Aaron’s main method of communication now because of his various delays. He has some hearing loss but it is mild. However, he can’t talk. Like a previous friend posted, my son has had three sets of ear tubes due to fluid and multiple ear infections and he also has verbal apraxia. So even though he is almost 5, he can only verbalize 5 or 6 words intelligibly. Sign language has been an essential part of our lives and I don’t believe for a minute that it has inhibited his language development. Why NOT give your child all of the tools available to help make him/her as successful as possible. That’s my two cents, but as time goes on you will figure out what is right for your family and Fiona.

    It is hard (especially at the beginning of this journey) to not read and pour over every single opinion and piece of information you come across but that won’t be as intense as time passes. I’m praying for you all and can’t wait to meet Fiona!

  7. Pingback: Auditory Verbal Center of Atlanta | Profoundly Strong - Fiona's Journey

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