2024: The Year of Signed Bilingualism

2024: The Year of Signed Bilingualism

In recent years, a growing body of research has emphasised the pivotal role of signed bilingualism in the development and well-being of deaf and hard of hearing children. And although for many years, this was a silenced pathway that most parents were never offered, the long-term benefits and outcomes emerging are becoming too powerful to ignore anymore.

Prior to having my own deaf son 3 years ago, I had been training and working in the Deaf Education space for 12 years.

That on it's own is lucky enough!

However, an added layer to that, is that during that time I was engaging in intensive and frequent training surrounding the bilingual bimodal approach as well as being immersed in the latest research surrounding signed bilingualism for deaf and hard of hearing children.

This pathway for Teacher's of the Deaf is much less common than you may think, so I consider myself incredibly privileged that I had the opportunity to be trained by some incredible experts in the field and build such a knowledge-base of this pathway before I had my son.

It takes "luck" to a whole new level, right?!

And I guess it's through that journey that I began banking these experiences and anecdotes of just how powerful a rich bilingual approach can be for these kids. This pathway has the capacity to foster a deeper parent-child bond right from the start, reduce the impacts of language deprivation, build a strong Theory of Mind, connect children to community and like-peers, reduce fatigue associated with listening & "lipreading" and most importantly, support a healthy, thriving self-concept and identity.

Let's look at these ideas a little closer!

The Parent-Child Bond:

One of the foundational aspects of a child's development is the bond formed with their parents. For deaf and hard of hearing children, communication barriers and poor access to the home spoken language can hinder this essential connection. Including a signed language in the home, provides a bridge for parents and children to communicate effectively from the very beginning (before devices and all those drawn out appointments!). This early bonding lays the groundwork for a strong and supportive relationship, fostering trust and emotional security - and also reduces the anxiety and stress parents can feel during those early 'waiting' days surrounding diagnosis and decision making.


Bye Bye Language Deprivation:

Language deprivation in deaf and hard of hearing children can lead to delays in cognitive, social, emotional, linguistic and academic development. By exposing children to both a signed language and spoken language early on, we can create a rich linguistic environment that enhances the world around them and mitigates the risk of language deprivation long-term.

This approach ensures that children have access to language (which is different to speech!) from an early age, supporting their cognitive growth and setting the stage for better outcomes as they grow!


Building Theory of Mind:

Theory of Mind is the ability to understand and attribute mental states to oneself and others. It is a crucial (albeit, overlooked!) piece to a child's development puzzle and ensures strong social understanding and healthy cognitive function. 

Signed bilingualism has been shown to enhance cognitive abilities, including Theory of Mind in young deaf and hard of hearing children and enhances their social and emotional intelligence as well as the way they approach relationships and interactions.

Check out my recent post on Instagram about this very topic!


Community is Key:

It's important to understand that the inclusion of a signed language moves beyond just the need for communication. It is also the key that opens the door to a deaf and hard of hearing child's connection to their community, peers & culture.

Signed bilingualism enables these kids to connect with peers and mentors who innately "get" their journey in a way, we as hearing parents, simply can't. (NOTE: That doesn't mean we're not still the expert of our kids, but recognising we are separate from the DHH experience is a humbling and necessary part of this journey if we are to help our little humans thrive to the best of their ability!).

The vibrancy and expression involved in signed languages help to facilitate deeper bonds & relationships, allowing children to form meaningful connections within their cultural and linguistic communities.


Lip Reading is Not a Thing!:

Unfortunately, there is a long-standing societal misconception that "lipreading" is an adequate communication tool for deaf and hard of hearing children. Believe me when I say, this is utterly false.

The ability to read lips is not a tool, yet a survival tactic many DHH kids innately attach to in order to navigate a hearing world. It does not provide them access to rich language and the actual process of reading lips (particularly with multiple speakers) is incredibly exhausting and fatiguing. 

Lip-reading is not a language.

A sign language, like Auslan, IS a fully established and rich language.

The difference?

One provides limited meaningful linguistic input and is completely the responsibility of the DHH child, the other provides rich language and enhances the effective & shared communication between the child and those around them. Additionally, it also contributes to the overall well-being of the child and allows them to conserve energy for other aspects of their development! It's a win win!


A Healthy Self-Concept for the Win:

Finally and I believe most importantly, the signed bilingual approach fosters a strong sense of identity and positive self-concept in deaf and hard of hearing children.

I have witnessed this constantly throughout my career and how profoundly it contributes to the overall holistic growth of these kids as whole living & breathing humans (particularly when our kids hit the very tumultuous adolescent years!). The bottom line is: the level of empowerment deaf and hard of hearing children feel in having clear, open & accessible language surrounding them, sets the stage for future success & safeguards their future in countless ways.

And Finally..

In the journey of nurturing & raising our brilliant deaf and hard of hearing children, a signed bilingualism approach emerges as a powerful and multifaceted pathway that ensures rich development across the board. From strengthening early parent bonding to reducing language deprivation and fostering a healthy self-concept, the benefits are profound and far-reaching.

By recognising the importance of signed bilingualism, we take significant strides towards creating inclusive and supportive environments that allow out children to thrive and reach their full potential in a hearing-dominant world.

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