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It is okay to provide access and continuous use of two languages (American Sign Language and English) with the deaf child. One language will not compromise or diminish the other. Instead, the development and nurturing of an accessible, visual language (ASL) will concurrently reinforce the development of English.

Throughout the United States a significant number of deaf children are receiving cochlear implants, and also using a visual language such as American Sign Language. The children are being educated bilingually and reaping the benefits afforded by two languages, American Sign Language (ASL) and English. They are experiencing the best of both worlds.

While some parents and professionals have reported positive experiences with cochlear implants, this does not necessarily suggest that the impact of deafness can be fully overcome by assistive devices; it is important to realize that the cochlear-implanted deaf child will continue to have special language learning needs and it is incumbent on the parent and professionals to consider the available research that best addresses those needs. Even with the cochlear implant, the child remains primarily a visual learner, and sound educational pedagogy indicates that one should play to the child's strength, vision, as opposed to playing to his/her weakness, hearing.

Research has shown that cochlear-implanted children with larger pre-implant vocabularies performed better in measures of language ability than did children who had smaller pre-implant vocabularies; this finding has important implications: 1) Parents considering cochlear implants must do whatever is necessary to increase their child's vocabulary skills prior to the cochlear implant and, 2) Considering the fact that deaf children can receive cochlear implants at ages 12 months or younger, that leaves very little time if parents are to teach language skills to their child before that time. Thus, based on the child's strength, which is vision, a visual language, such as American Sign Language (ASL), continues to be the most supportable early communication option for deaf children.

Parents who begin with a visual language and who encourage its continued use after cochlear implant surgery may be helping their child with second language (English) development more than is realized. Studies have demonstrated that deaf children who use a visual language, such as American Sign Language, have language acquisition skills comparable to their hearing peers, and that the timing of first (visual) language development positively affects children's abilities to learn a second language (English). These studies suggest that learning a first, easily accessible visual language provides dual benefits by: 1) allowing deaf children to recognize and figure out new material based on previous language experience, and, 2) by reducing the increased load on the child's working memory by allowing them to translate unfamiliar second language (English) into a more familiar first language.

Research conducted in the neuroscience laboratory at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, regarding the biological foundations of language, indicates that young deaf bilingual (ASL and English) cochlear-implanted deaf children are not harmed, delayed, or confused by early dual language exposure. These children not only achieve their language milestones in both ASL and English, they are also able to reach the same semantic and conceptual development as hearing monolinguals (one language users).

For the cochlear-implanted deaf child, a visual language such as American Sign Language (ASL), is often withheld in the belief that it interferes with speech development. However, there is no evidence that using ASL with the deaf child inhibits or prevents spoken language development. In fact, proficiency in a visual language has been shown to positively influence spoken language development and the development of English literacy in the child who has a cochlear implant.

Such research and suggestions, as outlined above, should come as a breath of fresh air to parents of cochlear-implanted deaf children, in that these parents are often given conflicting advice from professionals. It is okay to provide access and continuous use of two languages (American Sign Language and English) with their deaf child. One language will not compromise or diminish the other. Instead, the development and nurturing of an accessible, visual language (ASL) will concurrently reinforce the development of English. The two languages will be complementary and will lead to success in literacy and sociocultural development of the cochlear-implanted deaf child.


Research and common sense suggest that the following should be considered for the cochlear-implanted deaf child:

1. All linguistic input from birth should include visual input, auditory input, use of signs, gestures, facial expressions, voice.

2. Early accessible communication interaction between the child and parent is absolutely necessary for the child to acquire language. No matter how much hearing loss the child has, visual input assures the child's early accessibility to communication and language.

3. Early accessible communication directly affects the brain wiring necessary for the child's language development. Meaningful interactions from birth that are repeated and accessible result in the formation of "neural language connections" that stay in place.

4. There is a difference between acquiring a language and learning a language. A cochlear-implanted child exposed only to a spoken language, is not necessarily able to naturally acquire the language necessary to achieve native fluency that will ultimately lead to literacy in the English language.

5. All input from birth provides opportunities to see how the child responds to auditory and/or visual input. The idea is not to "choose a method for a child" but to allow the child let us know the best and most successful ways to communicate with him or her.

6. For deaf children who might be receiving a cochlear implant, "all input" from birth, including the use of signs, provides assured language input and an assured language base during the early months of life. A strong early visual language base can only help the child with continued language and speech development.

7. All input from birth provides time for parents to learn more about communication methodology possibilities and other issues related to their child being deaf without losing accessible language input.


J. Freeman King, Ed.D. is Professor, Deaf Education at Utah State University Logan, Utah.

Author's Note

The following is the follow-up article to "Parents and the Hard of Hearing Child," which appeared in the March 2019 edition of Exceptional Parent magazine
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2019 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:King, J. Freeman
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Apr 1, 2019
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