Speaking Out – By Rodney Adams BA, DipEd, MstSpecEd

Auslan Translation – Click here

Recent Australian figures show that 25% of science teachers do not have a science qualification and about one quarter of maths teachers do not have a major in maths.   I am sure that the statistics of teachers of the deaf with no expertise in Sign Languages would be far higher. Not even a Certificate II in Auslan from TAFE is sufficient. I have been teaching this course for over 10 years and have encountered many teachers who fail to master the theoretical  or practical aspects of grammatical Auslan. There is a serious lack of accountability in the deaf teaching profession.

The practice of qualifying teachers to work in a class where proficient signing is essential, (and this includes teacher aides working as interpreters), and who are unable to communicate fluently in Auslan is unacceptable. Not only are deaf students limited by an inadequate linguistic method but they are being disempowered. The continual use of Manually Coded English, (whether it be Signed English or some visual form of English), has left me perplexed. Countless studies have shown the harder the subject material becomes, as it does in the high school years, the less effective MCE is. Many teachers do not have the linguistic ability to conceptualise English into a language medium that is accessible for the deaf. The lack of Auslan skills from these teachers leads to the “Dumbing Down” of deaf education.

In NSW the Department of Education realised sometime ago that “recruitment and retention” of Aboriginal teachers is crucial to the success of Aboriginal students. Is the recruitment and retention of teachers of the deaf who are Deaf equally crucial for the education of deaf students in Auslan? I think it is and we need to aggressively recruit suitable Deaf people as teachers of the deaf. Not only do deaf children need more deaf role-models but they need good linguistic models.

Hearing teachers of the deaf are often insecure with their signing. Unfortunately such teachers have a monopoly over deaf education. This is often reflected in the signing ability of the students that graduate from our schools. Many are in need of sign therapy! Is it benevolent paternalism or economic self interest that prevents deaf teachers from teaching deaf children? It is probably both.

I believe, as do many Deaf people, that bilingualism is the most effective method for developing good communication skills, acquisition of language and developing a healthy sense of identity. However, having worked in a number of educational settings I am more inclined to believe that all methodologies used to teach deaf children have limitations, even bilingualism! Even so, the arguments for bilingualism are compelling.

There are many different views of bilingualism but the one I like most is by Francois Grosjean, who states that “Every deaf child, whatever the level of his/her hearing loss, should have the right to grow up bilingual. By knowing and using both a sign language and an oral language (in its written and where possible its spoken modality) the child will attain his/her full cognitive and linguistic and social capabilities.” (1999).

Grosjean’s view means that both the sign language of the Deaf community and the written and oral language of the hearing majority are used equally for the deaf child’s education. As Deaf people we should not devalue the importance of spoken language in its oral form any more than the hearing majority devalues sign languages.

Naturally some children will be dominant in Auslan while others will be dominant in spoken English. Some will even be balanced in both languages. Whatever language and degree of hearing loss, bilingualism will enable deaf students to communicate more effectively in both the Deaf and hearing worlds. Aside from learning two languages there are many other benefits of bilingualism. Bilingualism increases mental flexibility and understanding of other cultures. Studies also reveal that bilinguals often outperform monolingual children academically and in problem solving.

Our Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is bilingual having learned Mandarin during his diplomat posting in China. It is well accepted that ‘Cultural intelligence’ and knowledge of a second language will enhance future opportunities, both in education and employment. In an increasingly global world Kevin Rudd is an excellent example. Is this belief reflected in deaf education?

Increasing numbers of Deaf children, particularly those with cochlear implants, have been denied access to Auslan. Auslan can be used to improve language acquisition and can be used as a tool to enhance interaction and access to spoken English. Auslan and spoken English languages can exist in a mutual partnership within an educational program. Far too often this does not happen. Is it because hearing parents and professionals find it too difficult learn another language? Instead the easier answer is to make the child speak and conform into mainstream society – Never mind the impact of this attitude on language development!

Most parents want their deaf child to learn to speak, which is perfectly good and natural. But parents are being misled and deaf children denied access to the learning of Auslan under the misconception that it will impede speech development. Why is there still enormous aversion to the learning of sign languages in conjunction with spoken language? Research abounds that demonstrates the benefits. It makes no sense. Educational authorities need to forego the conclusion that sign languages are an inferior language. It has been shown through intensive research that sign languages assist, not impede, the development of spoken language. (Emmory, 2002).

Studies from the University Of Washington, USA (2002) have indicated that if sign language is not taught at an early age then that child will not acquire the fluency of a child who has been exposed to sign language in their early years. I am sure many non-native signers wish that they had been taught a sign language during their early school years. Surely it is better to provide deaf children with thorough language development through sign language knowing that the acquisition of spoken language is going to be an enormous challenge. The acceptable answer seems to be that semi-lingual and semi literate deaf children are ok if some recognisable speech is the outcome!

A recent Australian educational conference concluded that ‘the next divide in Australia will be between those students who have a global outlook and an international language and those who do not’. The same principal applies to deaf children. It is estimated that there are more bilinguals than monolinguals in the world today. Deaf children should have this opportunity too!

“The lesson of our age is that languages are not mutually exclusive, but that human beings and humanity itself, are enriched by communicating in more than one language.”

Kofi Annan, General Secretary of the United Nations


2 thoughts on “Speaking Out – By Rodney Adams BA, DipEd, MstSpecEd

  1. Let’s clarify a coupla things.

    To sign and to speak [oral] are a means of conveying a language. They are not languages in and of themselves.

    Auslan and English are the language.

    So when people speak of the right to sign and oral, they are speaking of something else.

    To speak of a Deaf/deaf person having the right/ or should be able to grow up bi-lingual, one must be careful as not to confuse the method with the language.

    Taken on face value, of course we Deaf have the right to grow up bi-lingual. But really, it’s not a question of rights as much as it’s a question of best practice.

    Logic, objectivity, and rationality, things that the hearing world prides itself on, are found to be in short supply, indeed, exhausted, when it comes to all things deaf.

    The modus operandi is the medical model, of which the solution is assistive listening devices [ALD – DRUGS!] and speech. So when the hearing world talks about a child’s right to hear, it’s actually code for, we have plans to make them hear and speak.

    In fact, parents often invoke their own rights when it the issue of educating, assimilating, and enculturating their child takes centre stage. It’s all about their [parental] views, their feelings, their [insert object here], which clashes with the rights of the child [to be how they are], and historical evidence. Which is why we keep going around in an endless loop.

    History is full of these tensions between parental impositions on their offspring, and their offsprings own ideas of what and who they are/ want to be.

    The Deaf – Hearing sphere is really no different.

  2. I think Rodney has clearly made this distinction between language and method. He speaks of spoken language and sign language. He speaks of the acquisition of language, cognitive needs and the need of linguistic role models.

    That said – the disitnction between what is language and the mode of conveying language (eg via speech or sign) is not well understood. Your post is a valuable reminder of this.

    Speech and sign are no more than a means for us to convey our thought processes and communicate our feelings and needs. Language allows us to make sense of the world and the world us. We are then able to SHOW and record this understanding through either speech or signs.

    The tragedy is that this huge and misguided idea that it is best done through speech, when speech is the hardest mode to acquire language for the deaf child, often stunts language acquisition. Equally the lack of access to fluent sign linguistic models can stunt language acquisition. This is where inadequaqtely skilled signing teachers do their damage.

    This can all lead to the child making little sense of the world and the world them. This is the disability of deafness that is not well understood – The mental turmoil for the child and the linguistically stunted deaf person who arrives at adulthood must be excruciating.

    This disitinction that you have raised, Tony, is rarely spoken of to parents. Hear and Speak, as you pointed out, are the themes that are used. Your post and Rodney’s are timely reminders of this.

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