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The Right of the Deaf Child to Grow Up Bilingual
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Sign Language Studies 1.2 (2001) 110-114



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Commentary

The Right of the Deaf Child to Grow Up Bilingual

François Grosjean


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, when possible, in its spoken modality), the child will attain his/her full cognitive, linguistic, and social capabilities.

What a Child Needs to Be Able to Do with Language

The deaf child has to accomplish a number of things with language:

1. Communicate with parents and family members as soon as possible. A hearing child normally acquires language in the very first years of life on the condition that he/she is exposed to a language and can perceive it. Language in turn is an important means of establishing and solidifying social and personal ties between the child and his/ her parents. What is true of the hearing child must also become true of the deaf child. He/she must be able to communicate [End Page 110] with his/ her parents by means of a natural language as soon, and as fully, as possible. It is with language that much of the parent-child affective bonding takes place.

2. Develop cognitive abilities in infancy. Through language, the child develops cognitive abilities that are critical to his/her personal development. Among these we find various types of reasoning, abstracting, memorizing, etc. The total absence of language, the adoption of a non-natural language or the use of a language that is poorly perceived or known, can have major negative consequences on the child’s cognitive development.

3. Acquire world knowledge. The child will acquire knowledge about the world mainly through language. As he/she communicates with parents, other family members, children and adults, information about the world will be processed and exchanged. It is this knowledge, in turn, which serves as a basis for the activities that will take place in school. It is also world knowledge which facilitates language comprehension; there is no real language understanding without the support of this knowledge.

4. Communicate fully with the surrounding world. The deaf child, like the hearing child, must be able to communicate fully with those who are part of his/her life (parents, brothers and sisters, peers, teachers, various adults, etc.). Communication must take place at an optimal rate of information in a language that is appropriate to the interlocutor and the situation. In some cases it will be sign language, in other cases it will be the oral language (in one of its modalities), and sometimes it will be the two languages in alternation.

5. Acculturate into two worlds. Through language, the deaf child must progressively become a member of both the hearing and of the Deaf world. He/she must identify, at least in part, with the hearing world which is almost always the world of his/her parents and family members (90% of deaf children have hearing parents). But the child must also come into contact as early as possible with the world of the Deaf, his/her other world. The child must feel comfortable in these two worlds and must be able to identify with each as much as possible. [End Page 111]

Bilingualism Is the Only Way of Meeting These Needs

Bilingualism is the knowledge and regular use of two or more languages. A sign language-oral language bilingualism is the only way that the deaf child will meet his/her needs, that is, communicate early with his/her parents, develop his/her cognitive abilities, acquire knowledge of the world, communicate fully with the surrounding world, and acculturate into the world of the hearing and of the Deaf.

What Kind of Bilingualism?

The bilingualism of the deaf child will involve the sign language used by the Deaf community and the oral language used by the hearing majority. The latter language will be acquired in its written, and if possible, in its spoken modality. Depending on the child, the...