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Being Bilingual: Sign Language

Being Bilingual Sign Language
Most people do not consider deaf people who understand both a signed language and an oral language to be truly bilingual.

Preference for Hearing

There is a prevalent and destructive bias regarding deaf children against admitting that they are deaf and that they should be treated as such. Doctors and parents often work very hard to bring hearing to their deaf children via surgeries and devices. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. However, when this crosses into denial and the child is not taught sign language in addition to an oral language, this becomes a mistake.

When you teach a deaf child sign language as well as an oral language, you are simply giving them one more tool. The belief that sign language will inhibit their acquisition of oral languages in some way is incorrect. Giving a deaf child sign language skills merely gives them another tool in which to communicate, and this will cause them to do better in school and later in life.

Sign Language is a Language

Many people think of sign language as a) a monolithic thing that is the same around the world and b) as a ‘code’ for spoken language rather than a language of its own. This is completely wrong. There are many sign language ‘dialects’ in the world, with distinct deaf communities fostering their own versions. While American Sign Language is possibly the most common, this does not mean that every deaf person in the world uses it, or even understands it.

Not Just Gestures

Second, sign languages are languages in their own right, not merely ‘gestures’ representing spoken language. There is often very little relation between a signed thought and its spoken counterpart. This is why having both a sign language and an oral language helps deaf people rather than hindering them: Like any bilingual person, they can choose their mode of communication based on the situation they are in.

When surrounded by hearing people who cannot understand sign language, they can use the oral language – whether spoken or written (and let’s not forget that ‘deaf’ people sometimes do have some hearing, or grew up being able to hear before they lost that sense – and thus may be able to speak a language perfectly well even if they cannot hear!) – but when in company that can sign they may find this an easier and quicker way to express themselves.

Sign language is an amazing invention, and those who can understand spoken as well as signed languages should be regarded as bilingual, and admired!

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