Language of the Deaf Acquisition of English

Effective English language skills are essential for the education of deaf children and for the integration of deaf individuals into the wider, hearing society. However, the average deaf student's English language competence over the course of his or her schooling is limited. Although periodic reviews of nationwide achievement testing reveal some improvement in the average reading levels of deaf students over the past 30 years, the increase is small, and in English literacy skills most deaf students fall farther and farther behind their hearing peers over the course of their schooling. The average reading comprehension scores for deaf students in the United States rises from the second-grade level at age 9 to around the fourth-grade level at age 17 (de Villiers, 1992). Among white deaf high school graduates, only about 15% read above the sixth-grade level, and the percentage is only about 5% for those who are from African-American or Hispanic backgrounds (Allen, 1994).

The hearing child and the typical deaf child are in very different stages of language development when they reach the point of formal schooling and reading instruction. Normally hearing 5- or 6-year-old children have a speaking vocabulary of several thousand words and have mastered most of the complex syntax of English. Thus, for hearing children, the acquisition of reading is primarily learning to map printed English onto an existing knowledge of spoken English (Adams, 1990).

For the deaf child, the situation is quite different. Impairment of hearing has a negative effect on the acquisition of a spoken language from early in the child's life, and all of the major milestones in normal language acquisition are considerably delayed. For example, around 6 months of age, normal-hearing infants begin producing the first approximations to consonant-vowel combinations, or syllables, over quite a wide range of speech-like sounds (so-called "marginal" babbling). A few months later "canonical" babbling emerges, in which the child produces a more restricted set of phonetic units in repetitive, rhythmic syllabic organization, and there is an abrupt decline in non-speech-like vocalizations. Canonical babbling increasingly uses the phonemes found in the adult input language, yet it makes no reference to any real-world objects or actions. However, the parents of these hearing infants treat their infants' babbles as if they were meaningful, engaging in reciprocal "dialogues" and commenting on the infants' utterances. For deaf infants, early vocalization and marginal babbling is not delayed, and they produce a similar range of speech-like sounds, which suggests that this stage is biologically driven. But canonical babbling is considerably delayed and appears to be deviant in both vocal quantity and quality (Mogford, 1993). So, hearing parents of deaf infants do not respond to their infant's vocalizations as proto-communications, being more likely to ignore or talk through them. Thus, most deaf infants are already at a disadvantage toward the end of the first year of life, both in their ability to extract the phonemes of their spoken language from the input and reproduce them, and in the initial structuring of conversational dialogues in parent-infant interaction (Paul, 2001).

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