Signing With Your Deaf Baby

A sensitive issue -- signing with your deaf baby -- was brought up in one of my favorite deaf-related mailing lists. MaryAnne Kowalczyk, a good friend of mine, added a post that said it best:

If signing with hearing babies has proven to be so successful, why aren't we encouraged to sign with our deaf babies, the ones who need it the most?

Excellent point!

Even though the benefits of baby sign language have been clearly established, it seems that there's a totally different reaction when a baby is diagnosed with a hearing loss.

Sign language often gets bumped aside in favor of a more pathological approach. Roll out the audiologists, hearing aids, speech therapists, and cochlear implants. Not that there's anything wrong with them, mind you. But it's as if sign language itself quickly becomes an afterthought.

When I was a hearing toddler, my deaf parents used sign language with me on a regular basis. Although no one back in those days was really crazy about American Sign Language (ASL), there were few objections when I signed. If anything, it was kind of like a cute diversion. It got laughs and a bunch of awwwwws at the family picnic.

And then, when I was five years old, it was discovered that I had a hearing loss of my own. It was like the rug got pulled out from under ASL. My impending deafness (a progressive, sensorineural hearing loss) had the "experts" and concerned relatives telling my deaf parents one thing: "Stop signing!"

It was as if ASL had gone through a total metamorphosis. Practically overnight, ASL went from an amusing idiosyncracy to an absolute evil that would allegedly destroy my speech and lipreading skills. Just like that, ASL was banned from my household. (Sounds crazy, but it's a true story. Gory details can be found in my book Deaf Again .)

An Epiphany

A few years ago, an eighth-grade student from Germantown Friends School asked me a mind boggling question.

"If you lost your hearing at age five and didn't have a sign language interpreter in school until you were fifteen, how did you pick up language in between? Shouldn't you have been stuck at the level of a five-year-old?"

Awesome question!

And I didn't know how to answer it.

My answer for this bright young man was "Reading. Lots and lots of reading." Well, yes, to some extent that's true. I was a bookworm. I would sit like a moron in a class full of hearing children I could not understand, and then I would ask someone for that day's homework assignment. Afterward I'd run to the library and catch up on whatever material I had missed. So it was my reading ability, I surmised, that must have saved the day.


Reading was only part of the equation. Where do you think I got the ability to pull off such a feat in the first place?

That's right -- baby sign language. Between birth and age three, my parents had signed to me. My brain was thus effectively "wired" for language. This is what allowed me to continue to expand my vocabulary through the years in spite of the obstacles my hearing loss and educational placement had presented.


In the book On the Fence: The Hidden World of the Hard of Hearing (Handwave Publications, 2007) there's a fascinating article by Jerel Barnhart, Ph.D. He explains the concept of "plasticity" and its application to language acquisition for deaf and hard of hearing children. Here's an excerpt:

Regarding research in learning of language, there are extensive studies that indicate the "plasticity" of newborns' brains. That is, they are able to learn and develop neural pathways quickly and easily. As a child ages, there is less plasticity and less chance of establishing neural pathways in learning new information such as language. There are indications that as early as age three, children begin losing that plasticity. By age five, it is considered that a child who hasn't been exposed to language will probably always be at a disadvantage at learning language and other verbal processes such as spelling and writing.

Now this effectively answers that eighth-grader's fascinating question. Without a doubt, it was my exposure to language -- incidentally, sign language -- between birth and age three that laid the groundwork for everything else.

On a side note: ironically, our awareness of plasticity also fuels the increasing number of cochlear implant surgeries for infants and toddlers. While many of us cringe at the thought of major surgery for kids so young, the research findings on plasticity clearly demonstrates the logic behind it. Regardless of how anyone in the deaf community feels about it, cochlear implants will continue to rise in popularity for this very reason.

Nonetheless, Dr. Barnhart -- who is deaf and has a cochlear implant himself -- advocates on behalf of sign language for young children with cochlear implants. His explanation is that infants can't sufficiently "work" with their audiologists during the mapping sessions that enhances their ability to use their cochlear implants. An older child or adult can provide accurate feedback to an audiologist, but an infant cannot.

There is also the matter of how much a child can hear versus how much a child understands. This is why Dr. Barnhart strongly recommends the use of sign language for all children, including those with cochlear implants, in order to "provide the best opportunity for a child to learn language at an early age."

It doesn't have to be either/or. If you prefer a hearing aid or a cochlear implant, that's fine. At the same time, sign language does not have to be pushed aside. Sign language is truly a gift. For all babies, deaf and hearing alike.

UPDATE: Emerging research has validated that early exposure to sign language does indeed wire the brain for language in ways that technology cannot, and in fact, it is the most reliable means of preventing language deprivation in deaf children. Check out this fascinating article on Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto's research at the NSF Center on Visual Language and Visual Learning.