Bilingualism, Deafness, and Literacy: Four Assumptions and Four Responses

Bilingualism, Deafness, and Literacy: Four Assumptions and Four Responses

Douglas C. Williams Jr.
Copyright: © 2022 |Pages: 20
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-8181-0.ch008
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Deaf students commonly leave high school with no higher than a fourth-grade reading level. This commonality may prompt certain assumptions regarding deaf children's strengths and weaknesses, particularly relating to reading development as well as broader academic and professional endeavors. The following review examines reading development among deaf, native sign language users as a bilingual process. Specifically, four common assumptions surrounding deaf learners' potential for ASL-English bilingual development are addressed including those relating to phonological accessibility, English-based signed system efficacy, ASL-English transference of language proficiency, and strategies for emergent literacy development in young, deaf learners. Finally, suggestions for future research endeavors are posed by the author.
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Bilingualism, the frequent and proficient use of two languages (Paul, 2009), is often associated with listening and spoken languages. However, bilingualism is not constrained by modality; languages may be either aural-oral (e.g., English) or visuo-manual (e.g., American Sign Language (ASL); Baker & Wright, 2017). Accordingly, a glance through most textbooks on bilingualism in education will likely reveal little to no mention of deaf students as bilinguals. In truth, most deaf people in the United States are bilingual to some degree in that they use a combination of languages (e.g., ASL and English) to navigate life in a majority hearing, non-signing society (Baker & Wright, 2017). Within the United States, labels such as English language learners (ELLs) and English as a second language (ESL) are frequently associated with those who speak a language other than English (e.g., immigrants and refugees from non-English speaking nations). Arguably, the characteristic that distinguishes deaf, signing bilinguals from hearing bilinguals is the cross-modality of deaf individuals’ bilingualism (i.e., ASL to print English), the process of bimodal-bilingualism (Baker & Wright, 2017). Although seemingly elementary, bilingualism is an umbrella term under which differentiations are made.

Designating an individual’s bilingualism is only partially sufficient. To understand the individual as a bilingual is to understand their bilingual development background. Bilingual development among individuals may be differentiated on reasoning (e.g., elective or circumstantial), order (e.g., simultaneous or sequential), language status (e.g., additive or subtractive), and environments in which bilinguals live (e.g., those that require frequent use of both languages or those that require one language but rarely the other; Baker & Wright, 2017). Regarding deaf, native ASL users (i.e., Deaf children of Deaf parents), bilingualism by way of English may be sequential (i.e., ASL developed first and English second), endogenous (i.e., ASL use primarily within the home and with immediate friends and family and English use in formal settings such as work and school), and circumstantial (i.e., required for general academic, occupational, and social success within a majority hearing, non-signing society).

In the United States, English language and textual literacy prowess is a common requirement for successful occupational and educational endeavors (Baker & Wright, 2017). Unfortunately, many deaf high school graduates have English textual literacy skills commensurate with typically hearing upper-elementary students (Paul, 2009). Paul (2009) attributes deaf learners’ low English textual literacy to “the increase of the inferential demands… and language demands… of reading after the third grade” (p. 285). This commonality among deaf high school graduates prompts critical consideration, investigation, and discussion: why do deaf learners struggle with English language/literacy bilingual-bimodal development? How do we, as scholars and educators, remediate such insufficiencies?

Bilingual development research often cites the interdependence hypothesis (Cummins, 2000), claiming one’s competency in their native language (L1) will transfer to and promote their development of a subsequent language (L2). Applicability of the interdependence hypothesis on deaf, signers’ knowledge of ASL transferring to, and ultimately promoting, their subsequent English language/literacy skill development has been debated (Mayer & Wells, 1996). Although skeptics oppose the idea that proficiency in a soundless, printless language (i.e., ASL) can promote language and textual literacy development in a sound-based language with an accompanying orthography such as English; Mayer & Wells, 1996), numerous researchers have argued otherwise (e.g., Andrew et al., 2014; Keck & Wolgemuth, 2020; Snoddon, 2008). However, the interdependence hypothesis depends on establishing a native language for bilingual/multilingual development, a premise often unsatisfied in deaf learners.

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