ASL Is Not A Fad

ASL is not a fad. Fingerspelling is not in vogue. A language is not something to fetishize, especially when it is being denied to a whole population of children who need it. American Sign Language is the only language that is fully accessible to deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) children. This does not mean that it’s a nice option. It does not mean that it’s a fun tool. It means that it is an absolute necessity for proper brain development.

If you, as a professional, are actively denying DHH children contact with their only accessible language, then you cannot promote ASL on the internet. If you are passively allowing someone else to deny that child access to ASL, you cannot promote ASL on the internet. If you subscribe to a mindset or a theory that deprives DHH children of an accessible language, then you cannot promote ASL on the internet.

To make an analogy, imagine you work with Spanish-speaking children who are forced to stop using their native language in favor of English. You do not speak Spanish and you don’t believe they should either. Every time they are caught speaking Spanish with each other, you punish them. You give them detention and take away their recess. Then, during your prep period, you make fun inspirational posters in Spanish and hand them out to your colleagues.

Or, to put it more poignantly, imagine you work with children who are starving. Children who are emaciated, completely deprived of nutrition. Yet you take out your lunch and eat it in front of them. “Mmmm, this is such a good sandwich,” you rave, offering your colleague a bite.

The act of promoting a language that you do not speak for personal gain is not only cultural appropriation, but it is a blatant dismissal of our professional obligation to cultural sensitivity. The act of creating fun handouts in a language while you purposefully withhold said language from children who need it is dishonest.

Thousands of DHH children suffer irreparable cognitive and linguistic deficits as a result of being denied access to American Sign Language during their critical language-learning years. This significantly impacts not only their academic achievement but their mental health, social-emotional development, and overall quality of life. If you are not actively advocating for a deaf child’s right to early access to ASL, then you do not have the right to promote the language on the internet for your own gain. ASL is not something you use to increase your social media followers. It is not a passing craze or a fun infatuation. It is a language that is being withheld from the children who need it most.

So before you make a cute handout or poster with fingerspelling from ASL, ask yourself if you are contributing to language deprivation. If your answer is anything other than a resounding no, then drop your project and do your part to advocate for language access for deaf and hard of hearing children.

Open Letter to ASHA

Open Letter to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)

March 2019

 

Dear ASHA,

We are writing in response to ASHA’s recent position statement opposing LEAD-K (Language Equality and Acquisition for Deaf Kids). As certified speech-language pathologists and members of your organization who work directly with the population of children who are deaf and hard of hearing, we felt it necessary to post this letter to express our extreme disapproval of ASHA’s stance on this issue.

The current crisis in deaf education is that hundreds of thousands of deaf and hard of hearing children are not obtaining anything close to the language foundation necessary not only for kindergarten readiness, but for lifelong learning and success. Research shows that the first five years of life are crucial for language learning and subsequent brain development, and that children who are deaf or hard of hearing often do not receive adequate language input during that critical time period. This phenomenon, language deprivation, causes permanent difficulties with cognition, language, and learning.

The LEAD-K legislation attempts to ameliorate this crisis by creating a systematic data tracking system to ensure that deaf and hard of hearing children are indeed on the same language development trajectory as their same-aged hearing peers. The organization clearly states that it “aims to end language deprivation through information to families about language milestones, assessments that measure language development, and data collection that holds our current education system accountable.” It proposes the creation of a parent resource that clearly outlines language developmental milestones for deaf and hard of hearing children aged birth to five. In section 1(c)(1), the LEAD-K model bill states that the parent resource shall “assist deaf and hard of hearing children in becoming linguistically ready for kindergarten using both or one of the languages of ASL and English.”

In the summary of its opposition, ASHA states that LEAD-K legislation “promotes the acquisition of American Sign Language (ASL) over other forms of language.” This is not only false, but it portrays an inaccurate depiction of biased legislation. It also states that ASHA believes no language should be promoted over another language when it is well known that spoken English is regularly promoted over American Sign Language. If the organization’s stance is indeed to promote all languages equally, then it must recognize that ASL is currently not being encouraged in an equal manner to English. In order for ASL to be considered a viable option for that deaf and hard of hearing children who need it, legislation of this kind is required to overcome decades of parent miseducation and professional recommendations that are heavily biased towards spoken English.

To that end, this legislation does not promote ASL over other languages. LEAD-K clearly states, “Our goal is language acquisition regardless of the language used, whether ASL or English or both.” Again, they state that their goal is “that all children who are deaf or hard of hearing, ages 0 to 5, achieve age-appropriate language” with a disclaimer in Section 1(j) of the model bill that “the term ‘language’ includes American Sign Language and English.”

Furthermore, LEAD-K promotes the creation of a linguistically diverse ad hoc advisory committee that will serve the purpose of providing expert input on language developmental milestones for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. In section 1(e)(2), the model bill recommends the committee have a “balance of members who personally, professionally or parentally use the dual languages of ASL and English and members who personally, professionally or parentally use only spoken English.” The bill lists examples of members that might make up the ad hoc committee, including but not limited to parents of D/HH children that utilize different languages, teachers of the deaf, researchers, speech-language pathologists, advocates, and early intervention specialists. It is evident by this list that LEAD-K intends for the advisory committee to be a diverse group with a variety of perspectives in order to quell potential bias. In fact, it explicitly states in section 1(e)(1)(b) that the committee will make recommendations on “what materials are unbiased and comprehensive to add to the parent resource.”

In ASHA’s issue brief, its states that “ASHA supports the family’s right to choose the appropriate language and/or communication system for their child who is D/HH.” This insinuates that the LEAD-K bill does not support the family’s right to choose. However, this claim is deceitful. In section 1(a)(6), LEAD-K’s proposed legislation states that the parent resource should “make clear that the parent(s) have the right to select which language (ASL, English, or both) for their child’s language(s) acquisition and developmental milestones.”

Additionally, ASHA states that the committee required by LEAD-K legislation would “duplicate the work of IFSP/IEP teams and undermine their decision-making authority.” In subdivision (8) of section 1(a), LEAD-K states that the parent resource should “make clear that a parent may bring the parent resource to an IFSP or IEP meeting for the purposes of sharing their observations about their child’s development.” The parent resource serves to empower parents to have clear information on how their child’s language is developing compared to same-aged peers. The assessments will inform parents if their child is not developing age-appropriate language skills and the team will be able to act accordingly. If anything, this will give the team, including parents, more authority in developing an appropriate program for the child. LEAD-K asserts that “language assessments measuring language acquisition and development will provide an early indicator if the child is not developing age-appropriate language and will improve accountability of the IFSP and IEP teams to ensure that the child is on track with developing language.”

Most alarming, however, is ASHA’s statement that LEAD-K would “require additional funding to support the committee, development of a parent/family resource, and implement the committee’s recommendations.” This declaration implies that ASHA places financial interests over the interests of deaf and hard of hearing children. Not only is it offensive, but it is arguably not the place of a professional organization to determine or influence states’ individual fiscal capability and decision-making. It is the prerogative of each state to determine, if they should decide to enact this bill, whether the financial cost of developing such a vital parent resource, expert committee, and data-tracking system is economically viable.

Language deprivation is an epidemic among deaf and hard of hearing children and it is fully preventable. Deaf and hard of hearing children who receive limited or little benefit from hearing technology are at significant risk for language deprivation and the resultant permanent cognitive impacts if they do not have early access to a visual language. LEAD-K is the only national effort that promotes educating families on both signed and spoken languages. ASHA’s opposition to LEAD-K demonstrates a desire to sweep current crises in language deprivation under the rug in a claim that “the policies are already in place through federal laws that address the health and education needs of infants and children identified with hearing loss.” If this were in fact the case, we would not see that approximately 70% of deaf children have not achieved an age-appropriate language foundation by kindergarten (preliminary data results of SB210, California’s LEAD-K bill). ASHA’s blatant and willful ignorance of the language deprivation crisis among children that are deaf and hard of hearing suggests that ensuring language development and subsequent brain development in this population is not a priority of the organization.

Furthermore, ASHA’s opposition statement endorses the continued practice of promoting English over ASL and ignores the alarming and overwhelming evidence that deaf and hard of hearing children benefit greatly from visual language. By opposing this vital legislation, ASHA is declaring financial interests a priority over ensuring adequate language development in children who are deaf and hard of hearing.

For the reasons stated above, we, certified speech-language pathologists who work with the population of children that are deaf and hard of hearing and are members of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, do not agree with the official position of ASHA, our governing organization. We hold language development to be a top priority, regardless of the language. We recognize the current biases in the system that encourage English over ASL, and assert that ASL should be promoted equally. We implore our national organization, ASHA, to consider the impact this opposition statement has on our profession in the field of deaf education and within the deaf community. We encourage fellow ASHA members and fellow speech-language pathologists to read the model bill proposed by LEAD-K, as well as LEAD-K’s Mythbusters, prior to making a decision. We support the message and the campaign put forth by the LEAD-K organization and encourage ASHA members to support the legislation in their state.

Respectfully,

Kimberly Sanzo, MS, CCC-SLP                                   Liliana Diaz-Vazquez MS, CCC-SLP/L

Razi M. Zarchy, MS, CCC-SLP                                    Sharon E. Graney, MS, CCC-SLP

Kelsey Ernste, MS, CCC-SLP                                      Abigail Bradley, MA, CCC-SLP

Jessica Holman, MEd, CCC-SLP                                 Mariel Knauss, MS, CCC-SLP

Nicole Chow, MS, CCC-SLP                                       Kim Abts, MS, CCC-SLP

Rachel Jordan, MS, CCC-SLP                                      Mary Grace Hamme, MS, CCC-SLP

Thea Beaney, MS, CCC-SLP                                        Amy Esplund, MA, CCC-SLP

Caryssa McCool, MS, CCC-SLP                                   Holly Geeslin, CCC-A/SLP

Jacqueline K. Grant, MA, CCC-SLP                            Leslie Caldwell, MA, CCC-SLP

Claire A. Lombardo-Miller, MA, CCC-SLP, SSP         Pam Fish, AuD CCC-SLP/A

Jenna Frink, MS, CF-SLP Casey Spelman, MS, CCC-SLP

Lindsey Pfledderer, MA, CCC-SLP Debbi Praml, MS, CCC-SLP

Austin Christensen, MS, CCC-SLP

 

Hasty Generalization

Hasty generalization is a fallacy in which one reaches a generalization based on insufficient evidence, making a rushed conclusion without considering all of the variables. This cognitive bias purports the following:

A is true for B. A is true for C. Therefore, A is true for D, E, F, etc.

A recent study by Chu et al. (2016) reported that “the language abilities of children who communicated solely via listening and spoken language were significantly better than children who used sign language.”

This is a classic case of hasty generalization.

In the study, Chu looked at two groups of children: one that utilized only spoken language after implantation, and one that used total communication after implantation. Spoken language (in this case, English) is a robust language system in and of itself. Total Communication (TC) is not. TC, which has come to mean simultaneous communication (SimCom), is the practice of signing and speaking at the exact same time. This is well known to have negative effects on language development, as it degrades the signal of both languages. TC/SimCom are not languages. They are a form of pidgin, or an amalgamation of two languages without its own grammar and structure.

What is the ACTUAL conclusion of this study? The language abilities of children who communicated solely via listening and spoken languages were significantly better than children who used a pidgin-like combination of spoken and signed modalities.

Of course they were.

That would be like saying that children who are monolingual English speakers perform better on English language tasks than children who speak Franglais. Therefore, French is the problem. No. Franglais is the problem. Mixing two languages into a non-language is the problem. Comparing real languages to pidgins is the problem.

American Sign Language (ASL) is a fully formed and robust language equal to English. TC and SimCom are NOT. If the study had instead looked at children who use spoken English alone and children who use ASL and English separately in their own forms, they would have found very different results.

How is this hasty generalization? The researchers assumed that because language abilities in English are decreased (A) in children who use total communication (B) and in children who use simultaneous communication (C) then it must be true for children who use American Sign Language (D). This is faulty logic and a perfect example of hasty generalization.

Beware of studies that use hasty generalization. Overgeneralizing negative results from a group of children using TC/SimCom to include a real language like ASL is very bad science. Read these studies carefully. If they are being reported by another source, be sure to find and read the actual article.

The Case for Sign Language

In order to understand the case for sign language, it is important to first understand language development. A typical hearing infant is constantly exposed to language in the spoken modality from the moment they are born. That is, the child cannot turn of their ears and cease the input to the brain. As a result, their brain is receiving continuous stimulation that helps build neuronal connections and shape development.

If a typical hearing infant learns language without effort or explicit teaching, why shouldn’t a deaf child be afforded the same privilege? In the example of the hearing child, the language that he/she is able to learn effortlessly happens to be one of a spoken modality. In the example of the deaf child, the language that he/she is able to learn effortlessly is one of a signed modality. As Glickman asserts in a 2007 study, the only language that a deaf child can acquire naturally and effortlessly is sign language.

Because most deaf children are born to hearing parents, listening and spoken language is the most common modality choice. This means that the child is fitted with hearing aids, or undergoes either unilateral or bilateral cochlear implant surgery, with the purpose of learning to listen and speak. There is one glaring problem with this method: current research has shown that it is not sufficient as a standalone approach for language intervention (Hall et. al, 2017). There are a few reasons for this. The first is that hearing aids and cochlear implants, like most technology, are prone to malfunction and failure. For every moment that the child’s aid or implant is not working properly, that child loses precious input to the brain. Sometimes, the internal component of the implant malfunctions. To replace this, the child must undergo another surgery. Moreover, most of the current technology cannot be worn when the child is showering, swimming, sleeping, or playing sports. These are language-learning opportunities that a hearing child naturally receives, but that are eliminated for the deaf child who is learning to listen.

The second reason is the amount of work and therapy required to learn to listen with a hearing aid, and even more so, a cochlear implant. Listening through a cochlear implant is very different than natural hearing. The implant is an array of electrodes that is inserted into the cochlea, or the hearing organ. Normal hearing occurs when the hair cells of the cochlea are compressed by inner ear fluid and consequently stimulate the auditory nerve. With a cochlear implant, the stimulation to the auditory nerve is via electrical impulses, bypassing the hair cells of the cochlea. As a result, the brain must overtly learn to interpret what these impulses mean. It must be trained to understand the input. Therefore, while hearing children are effortlessly learning spoken language, implanted deaf children are working overtime to explicitly learn something that their brain has the ability to absorb easily in another modality. To do this requires a rigorous course of doctor’s appointments, audiology appointments, MAPping sessions, and speech and listening therapy. The obvious issue here is that many parents are not able, or perhaps willing, to bring their child to these vital appointments as frequently as is required.

The third, and most critical reason is one that is largely overlooked. Cochlear implant technology has improved considerably over the years, and scientists and surgeons highly acclaim the equipment itself. However, there is still no way to predict the reaction of a child’s brain to this technology, despite perfectly functioning equipment. As Humphries et. al. (2012) assert, cochlear implants involve not only progress in technology, but the biological interface between technology and the human brain. Some children’s brains simply do not “take” to the unnatural input to the auditory nerve. Children with additional diagnoses or brain differences demonstrate significant difficulty learning to listen with a cochlear implant. Some children’s brains react to the electrical impulses with vertigo, seizure activity, or migraines. Any of these situations might require years to discover, assess, and attempt to resolve. In the interim, the child is not receiving an adequate language signal during their most imperative years.

This is not to say that a child should not receive hearing aids or cochlear implants. It is simply to demonstrate that listening should not be the child’s sole access to language. According to Hall et. al. (2017), “many deaf children are significantly delayed in language skills despite their use of cochlear implants. Large-scale longitudinal studies indicate significant variability in cochlear implant-related outcomes when sign language is not used, and there is minimal predictive knowledge of who might and who might not succeed in developing a language foundation using just cochlear implants” (p. 2).

Children using cochlear implants alone simply are not acquiring anything close to language fluency. Therefore, it is important that medical professionals do not give families the false impression that the technology has advanced to the point where spoken language is easily and rapidly accessed by implanted children (Humphries et. al, 2012).

If, however, a deaf child is exposed to sign language from an early age, that child will have a natural and effortless language as a foundation for all other learning, including listening and speaking. As Skotara et. al. observed in a 2012 study, the acquisition of a sign language as a fully developed natural language within the sensitive developmental period resulted in the establishment of brain systems important in processing the syntax of human language.

If a deaf child is provided nutrition to the brain via sign language, that child will develop typical language and cognitive abilities. By learning a natural first language from birth, basic abstract principles of form and structure are acquired that create the lifelong ability to learn language (Skotara et. al, 2012). This forms a foundation for learning listening and spoken language, if desired. If, through sign language, a child has the cognitive understanding and neural mapping for the concept of a tree, for example, that child will be better able to produce the word “tree.” If, through sign language, a child has conceptual knowledge of through, that child will be better able to use the word “through” accurately in a sentence. A brain cannot speak the words for concepts it does not possess. Sign language provides the venue for learning these critical concepts. In fact, research has shown that implanted children who sign demonstrate better speech and language development, and intelligence scores than implanted children who don’t sign (Hall et. al, 2017).

Thus, it is vital that a deaf child be provided immediate and frequent access to sign language. This is not in lieu of spoken language, but rather as a prophylactic measure. The two are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they can and should be learned concurrently, as bilingualism has many benefits for brain development. As Humphries et. al. assert, there is no reason for a deaf child to abandon spoken language, if it is accessible to this child, simply because they are also acquiring sign language (2012).  With sign language, a deaf child will always have a fully accessible language. Therefore in the event that their cochlear implant breaks, malfunctions, can’t be worn, or simply doesn’t “click” with their brain, that child still has a language. With sign language as a foundation, a deaf child is able to build other cognitive processes that lead to a lifelong ability to learn and perform on par with their hearing peers.

Well-Written Pseudoscience is Still Not Science

I had the recent misfortune of stumbling upon an article written by a speech-language pathologist who is an auditory-verbal therapist. The content of this heinous piece of work was well-written and appeared professional. However, this skilled façade was masking an overall gross miscarriage of research and information that stems from a history of pseudoscience masquerading as real science. Not only am I ashamed that this woman is a part of my field, but I am positive that I lost brain cells reading her work. Below is the original article with my responses added in bold:

 Why Not Baby Signs?

 Even parents who have chosen a listening and spoken language outcome for their children often ask, “Should we use baby signs?” just to fill the gap during the time from identification to cochlear implantation, or identification to those first spoken words.  If you’re to believe the media hype, every parent, those of children with and without hearing loss, is doing it.  So what could be the problem? I would implore this author to look up the word “hype” as she clearly struggles to understand its meaning. Research-based and evidence-based recommendations are not “hype.” Using the word “hype” to degrade legitimate linguistic and neurological evidence is deceitful and appalling.

However, media hype is just that: hype.  A marketing frenzy created by companies that care way more about their bottom line than your child’s development or any kind of real research, making wildly unsubstantiated claims that baby signs will do everything from increase your child’s IQ to solve world hunger (okay, maybe not that last one).  When we really examine the sources, are baby signs all they’re cracked up to be?  Here is what I discuss with parents: Using hyperbolic statements to demean actual research behind bilingual language development is childish and small. It shows that this author’s only tool against the truth is to mock it, as she has no legitimate counterargument.

If you have chosen a listening and spoken language outcome for your child, start in the direction you mean to go.  Devoting time and energy to learning signs, even baby signs, that you plan on dropping later is taking precious time off task and siphoning your energy away from what you’ve identified as your primary goal: becoming the first and best teacher who can help your child learn to listen and talk.  I believe that parents have the right to choose whatever communication method will work best for their family.  But I advise them:  once you choose a communication method, run after it like crazy and give it 100%. That is how the “success stories” in any communication mode are made. It’s extremely presumptuous to assume that these families will be “dropping” signs later. It is impossible to know what will work for that child’s brain. If the child takes to sign language, then that child will NOT be “dropping” signs later. Taking the speaking/listening method and “running after it like crazy” is how you create language deprivation resulting in permanent neurological deficits. The problem with the idea that you should pigeonhole yourself into only the speaking/listening method is that it causes parents to persist with a language that isn’t working for their child for FAR too long. This results in severe and permanent language deficits and lifelong learning deficits simply because someone like this author convinced parents that forcing a round peg into a square hole with all your might and focus will make it go in.  

Another aspect to consider is that baby signs are not full, complete language.  By only signing key words, parents are providing their child reduced language input, when they have at their disposal a full, fluent language (their native language(s)) already in the home.  If you’re talking to your baby and only signing key words (“Do YOU WANT your BOTTLE?  It’s time to take a DRINK.  Are YOU HUNGRY?) it’s like talking to a dog who only hears, “Wah wah wah wah wah LEASH wah wah WALK wah wah TREAT.”  You’re being the Charlie Brown teacher, and your baby is not building the crucial linguistic connections in the brain for a full language system.  (This is another reason why I encourage parents who choose a sign language approach to become fluent… yesterday). This is, quite simply, disgusting and offensive. YOU WANT BOTTLE with eyebrows raised for DO is grammatically correct in American Sign Language. YOU HUNGRY with eyebrows raised for ARE is grammatically correct in American Sign Language. Just because a language doesn’t follow the syntactic structure of YOUR language does not make it “Charlie Brown teacher talk.” Imagine I said that because in French you say Est-ce que tu veux ton biberon?  and “est-ce que” is not the structure we use in English, therefore French is like gibberish and shouldn’t be used with children. Sound asinine? That’s because it is.

The other assertation in this appalling passage is that parents have to be fluent in American Sign Language in order for their child to learn it. This, again, proves that this author has no knowledge of neurolinguistics and should therefore refrain from commenting on language development. You know when American children of immigrants don’t become fluent in English because their parents don’t speak it fluently? Oh that’s right, that doesn’t happen. That is exactly what this author is prescribing to, even though we know that is exemplary pseudoscience.  

The signs taught in baby signs books/videos/DVDs/flashcards (don’t get me started on flashcards) are iconic.  That is, if you’ve ever played a game of charades, you probably know these signs.  They’re signs that make sense because you’re literally acting out or creating a picture of the thing you’re discussing (think about the signs for book, drink, eat, etc.).  If you think about spoken language, there is nothing inherently “book” about the word “book.”  Nothing about how you say “cat” actually means the animal “cat.”  This is an important difference.  We have to help infants and toddlers learn the relationship between words and their referents.  There are non-iconic signs in ASL, but they’re not the ones in the standard baby sign repertoire.  If your goal is spoken English, you’re much better served helping your child establish spoken word-referent connections instead. This paragraph truly shows the level of incompetence this author has surrounding American Sign Language and languages in general. The level of ineptitude displayed in this passage will take me a while to deconstruct, so bear with me.

First of all, ALL languages, spoken and signed, have iconicity (or words/signs that in and of themselves convey their own meaning). That being said, there is a very archaic and unproven belief that iconicity in a language somehow makes it subpar or substandard. This, from a linguistic perspective, is simply untrue and shouldn’t be given any attention. This author’s audacity is the equivalent of me, who knows absolutely no Chinese, saying, “That one Chinese character happens to look like what it means, therefore learning Chinese will hinder your ability to learn English.” Sound ridiculous? That’s because it is.

The examples of signs provided (i.e. book, drink, eat) are somewhat iconic. This is an interesting observation, and that’s the extent of its utility in this context. It has no effect whatsoever on language development any more than learning “baa” which sounds exactly like a sheep, would impair your ability to learn English. In fact, the majority of signs are not iconic at all; nothing about the way you sign “brother” actually means the person “brother.” I would beseech this author to avoid making linguistic assessments of which she has no background or formal knowledge.   

Parents are often sold on the many myths promoted by those who have a significant financial interest in selling baby sign materials.  But do they have any merit?

·          Myth: Baby signs encourage bonding by enabling children to express their needs sooner.  Baby signs serve to decrease parental responsiveness.  There are real, significant, evolutionarily and developmentally important reasons why babies do not talk until they’re around a year old.  Most mothers of infants can identify their baby’s cries and tell you that the infant has distinct sounds for hunger, wetness, or pain.  There’s a purpose for this!  Babies aren’t supposed to tell us what they need — it’s part of the bonding process that helps parents become attuned to their children’s needs.  It may be more convenient for you to have your child “tell” you what he wants, but you are short-circuiting a very important bonding process. Again, I would implore this author to look up the definition of the word “myth.” She has amazingly taken the objective and evidence-based fact that children can produce signs earlier than words and twisted it into blaming parents for being lazy. Preying on parents’ desires for their deaf child to be “normal” by guilting them into pseudoscientific methods is a repulsive practice that needs to stop.  

·          Myth: My child is so smart, he could tell me he wanted more food using sign way before any of the other babies could say it.  This is simple operant conditioning.  If I do X [the sign], I get Y [more food].  You can train a rat to do this.  I don’t think it says much about your child’s long-term intellectual potential.  Isolated signs like this to get what you want are a “trick,” not a full language system. You can’t call something a myth just because it goes against your own personal beliefs. The fact that children can produce signs earlier than spoken words is rooted in objective evidence that has been proven across multiple fields. The fine motor skills of the hands develop prior to the fine motor movements of the lips and tongue.

·          Myth: Because baby signs are marketed as “educational,” they must have value.  Unlike words like “Reduced Fat” or “Caffeine Free,” “Educational” is not a federally regulated label.  Anyone can advertise their products as being “educational” without the slightest hint of research behind them.  At the end of the day, no matter how cute the story is behind the product, or how hard they try to sell you on the idea that this is a “family” production or “by moms, for moms,” these companies care about their bottom line, not your child.  That’s just how capitalism works. No one is “marketing” baby signs. Recommending early access to language for deaf babies and providing parents the resources to do so is simply best practice. Again, because this author has no other counterargument she is resorting to absurdities in an attempt to make a futile point.

So what does the research say about baby signs? Topshee Johnston et al. (2003) performed a comprehensive review of nearly 1,200 studies that had been conducted on baby signs and found that only five showed that baby sign programs had a positive effect on child language… and the positive effects shown in those studies did not last past age two.  An exhaustive review of the evidence showed overwhelmingly neutral/negative effects from baby sign language.  Any positive outcomes noted did not have persistent, long-lasting effects on the child’s language and cognitive development later in life.  By age two, it was impossible to tell the difference between children who had used baby signs and those who had not. For every poorly conducted research article that states this, there is a robust study that states the opposite. This is not a matter of deaf children, but one of basic bilingual language development. Any linguist, developmental scientist, speech-language pathologist, or neurologist worth their salt will tell you that learning a second language NEVER impedes a child’s ability to learn the first language. Ever.  

Kirk et al. (2012), found no evidence to support claims that using baby signing with babies helps to accelerate their language development.  While babies did learn the signs and begin using them before they started talking, they did not learn the associated words any earlier than babies who had not been exposed to baby signs, and did not show any overall enhancement in language development.  The study did find that helping parents become more attentive to their children’s gestures served to increase responsiveness and bonding, but this is a standard part of early intervention in auditory verbal therapy, and not unique to baby sign programs. This study directly contradicts what this author wrote only three paragraphs ago. The study found that helping parents become more attentive to their children’s signs served to increase responsiveness and bonding. Interestingly, this author just stated that “It may be more convenient for you to have your child “tell” you what he wants, but you are short-circuiting a very important bonding process.” I would beware of believing an article written by someone who contradicts herself within the same essay.

In infants with hearing loss who go on to receive cochlear implants, Dr. Susan Nittrouer found that when sign language was used to supplement spoken language, there was no effect on the spoken language of children identified with hearing loss below one year of age. However, for children identified at one year of age or older, there is a negative effect—that is, when you combine spoken language and sign language in children over one year of age, their spoken language suffers.  Basically, if you want to knock yourself out doing baby signs with your infant pre-CI, you’re just exerting energy for no effect on your child’s language.  If you want to use signs after your child receives the CI, you’re working against their listening and spoken language development. Again, the pseudoscience is rich here. Using sign language after your child received a cochlear implant DOES NOT work against their listening and spoken language development. There is ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE that supports this and these words should never be uttered again.

If you’re interested in reading the original dross, you can find it here.

Why Isn't ASL "Cool" Enough for Deaf Children?

I’m scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed when I see it for the umpteenth time: an article describing how Starbucks will open an ASL-friendly store in October. At least three people have posted the article on my wall or shared it with me. The same goes for the cute Target doormat with “welcome” spelled out in the ASL finger alphabet. And the kids t-shirts with the “I love you” handshape on them. And the video of the college engineering student who designed gloves that simulate ASL signs. And the one of a bride signing a song to her husband or her father at her wedding.

Every day I see these videos, articles, and products going viral. The internet seems to love the idea of American Sign Language. It’s cool. It’s hip. It’s a fun way to communicate. It’s different from the spoken modality that we are all so used to.

However, what most people don’t realize is that ASL is still missing from the one place it is so desperately needed: the brains of young deaf children. An alarming number of deaf children are subjected to inadvertent language deprivation during their critical language-learning period. This means that during the first few years of life, when a child’s brain is most primed and able to learn language, deaf children are not receiving adequate input.  

The repercussions of depriving a young brain of language are severe and long lasting. Children that do not receive access to a robust language signal within the first five years of life demonstrate a variety of potentially irreversible cognitive-linguistic deficits. This includes deficits in the ability to understand language, use language, and organize thoughts into cohesive sentences. Additionally, and perhaps more poignantly, it also includes deficits in cognitive functions such as spatial concepts and awareness, time concepts and sequencing, number sense and counting, and memory.

Language is brain food. A brain with rich language input is like a body with healthy nutritive input. Therefore, depriving a child of language while his or her brain is still developing can permanently and significantly alter that child’s neurological growth.

While hearing aids and cochlear implants are fantastic technology, they are also subject to the unknowns of technology. They break. They malfunction. Children reject them. Sometimes they simply do not connect with the child’s brain for some inexplicable reason. Signed languages are the only languages that are one hundred percent accessible to a deaf child at all times.

So my question is: If ASL is so “cool,” why isn’t it cool enough for a deaf child? Perhaps we should start sharing articles detailing the importance of providing a deaf child early access to a signed language the same way we share the article about an ASL-friendly Starbucks. Perhaps we should infuse deaf children with the same awe and admiration for ASL as we spread around the internet. Perhaps if we did this, we could change a child’s life.

It's a Cochlear Implant, Not a Cochlea

The cochlea is a small, fluid-filled, ice cream swirl-shaped structure in the inner ear. Its inner canals are covered in tiny hair cells. After sound travels through the outer and middle ear, converting from acoustic to mechanical energy, it reaches the cochlea. The mechanical energy from the middle ear bones converts to hydraulic energy when it creates pressure waves on the inner ear fluid of the cochlea. The fluid puts pressure on the tiny hair cells, which activate the auditory nerve. It is at that point that the final conversion of energy occurs, from hydraulic to electrical. The electrical impulses are sent to the brain and interpreted as information.

Like other organs in the body, the cochlea performs an astonishing and uniquely human function. However, unlike other organs in the body, when surgery is performed on the cochlea there is limited concern for bodily rejection.

There is a common misconception that cochlear implants are like eyeglasses. An implant allows you to hear, much like glasses allow you to see. However, the important distinction is that cochlear implants have direct interaction with the brain. As Humphries et. al. (2012) state, cochlear implants involve not only progression in technology, but the biological interface between technology and the human brain. And, while the equipment itself may function perfectly, there is no way to predict the reaction of a child’s brain to the technology.

The intentional disregard for this crucial fact is the most dangerous mentality. This type of blatant overlook is not typical with other surgeries, for obvious reasons. When a pacemaker is placed, the recipient is educated extensively on the potential complications, including failure of the device. When an organ is surgically replaced, the chance of the body rejecting the new implant is openly discussed. Recipients of surgically implanted prostheses of any kind are always informed of the risks of failure or rejection. They are never informed that their artificial structures are seamless replacements for the original organ.

We owe it to implanted children to do the same when educating their parents. Because a child’s brain is still developing and learning language, device rejection or failure of any kind can result in stunted brain development and language deprivation. Parents must be informed that it is still impossible to know how a child’s brain will react to the implant. Because of this, cochlear implants are not sufficient as a standalone approach for language intervention (Kral et. al, 2016). Implanted children must be taught sign language as a preventative measure to ensure proper brain development.

A cochlear implant is a man-made device that is surgically implanted. Just as a pacemaker does not replace the function of the heart, a cochlear implant can never fully replace the function of the cochlea. And just like a pacemaker, its recipients must be properly educated about the repercussions of its potential rejection.