The Benefits of American Sign Language
How ASL liberates Deaf children from social and emotional isolation
Thomas Tranchin’s parents discovered he was deaf when he was one year old in 1989. Both parents were devastated. They had never interacted with a deaf person before, and they felt that Tommy would never amount to much with such a harsh disability.
As he grew older, his parents began to disagree on how to raise him. His mother wanted to raise him orally, and his father thought he should learn sign language. He ended up growing up orally, which came with a lot of struggles. Tommy would throw temper tantrums because no one could understand him. Other behavior issues were constant in his childhood, and learning speech was slow going.
He never mastered the language. In 2003, Tommy, still struggling for connection and in the midst of his parents’ divorce, committed suicide at fifteen years old (For a Deaf Son, 1994).
Though we are unsure what led to his suicide, we can speculate that Tommy’s struggle with language and consequently social development played a role. Typically, children become 50 percent understandable to strangers by two years old. By four years old, they are 100 percent understandable, though they may have a few nuances in their speech.
Deaf children are at an extreme disadvantage for oral language development for one obvious reason- they can’t hear to understand that there is a language going on. Ironically, more parents are teaching their hearing children American Sign Language in order to enhance their language development, yet there is still speculation around teaching deaf children anything other than oral English.
As seen in the illustration below, the limitations put on these children do not come when they don’t acquire oral English, but when they are prohibited from learning sign language and put in isolation. Raising deaf children with American Sign Language will improve the child’s social and emotional development, therefore setting them up for future successes.
On my mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Anaheim, California, I served with Jazmine. Jaz was born in Mexico and has been deaf from birth. She grew up signing Lengua de Señas Mexicana, or LSM. When she came to serve her mission in California, she learned English and American Sign Language. She quickly became one of the most dependable missionaries in the Deaf branch and saw a lot of success in serving others while she was there.
Jaz loves taking pictures, drawing, and being with friends. Just because Jaz is deaf did not make her incapable of language acquisition, even later in age. Signed language opened up the doors for her to learn even more languages, serve others, and make a difference in the world- exactly what any parent would want for their child.
Another missionary I served with was Kevin. Kevin grew up in Bolivia and learned Lenguaje de Señas Bolivianas, or LSB, in his teens. He is deaf and mute, meaning he has no chance at learning an oral language. After years of social isolation and lack of a language, he was taught LSB.
He came to California during my last two months there and tried to learn English and American Sign Language at the same time. Kevin did not have the same foundation as Jazmine. The effects of his childhood isolation were seen in his behavior and his emotional health. He struggled to understand social cues and was often caught off-guard by situations he experienced as he was serving others. Eventually, he decided that serving in California was too hard, and ended up leaving his mission early.
I’ve been led to believe that learning some form of signed language is imperative for deaf children’s social and emotional health. Both Jazmine and Kevin were faced with the same challenge, but Jazmine had the social and emotional structure to meet that challenge while Kevin did not. Today, Jazmine is attending school in Mexico and is still in contact with her friends from the mission.
Kevin contacted me for the first time in two years about a month ago. Unfortunately, he holds a lot of regret from what he sees as failing at his best opportunity to serve and make a difference. His language has improved a lot since I saw him last in California, and he is still working to overcome some social and emotional issues.
Jazmine, Kevin, I, and others worked with a Deaf congregation of around thirty to forty deaf individuals. The differences in this congregation were astounding. There were only a few that considered themselves educated. They graduated from high school, but from that group only one went on to college. Troubling to me, the majority of this Deaf congregation had little to no education. There are a few that never learned any language, English or American Sign Language, and only communicated through gestures and noises. A significant portion of our time was simply teaching Deaf members American Sign Language and written English.
I have so much respect for these people. They have lived their entire lives with little to no communication and are still able to learn and function. However, it breaks my heart that this preventable tragedy has occurred repeatedly, affecting more people than it should. I can’t help but wonder what these people could have been capable of if they weren’t isolated because of their deafness.
How to raise a child is a sensitive topic as it is, but more so when that child is faced with a disability. Raising a deaf child orally may bring long-term success, but the first few years are rough, and success is far from guaranteed. As seen in Tommy’s life, there are many questions that can tear a family apart, namely “What language should we teach our deaf baby?” Almost on instinct, hearing parents want their deaf child to learn to talk. They live in a hearing world surrounded by hearing people, and if they are going to be successful in anything, they will need to learn how to communicate for themselves, not with an interpreter.
When raised orally with no sign language, a deaf child is essentially raised in isolation. In my field of study, communication disorders, I learned that the first few years of life are essential to language development. Children listen to their parents far before they learn to speak for themselves, and this shapes their speech sounds and other foundations of language. Logically, it follows that deaf children would have a difficult time following this pattern.
Even with hearing aids, most with severe hearing loss still do not hear enough to recognize a language. Many of my deaf friends say that they rely heavily on lip-reading because they are unable to hear clearly enough to make-out speech sounds. This creates a challenge for deaf children when trying to connect with their parents. When forced to learn oral English, they often feel unable to foster relationships until a much later age than is typical.
With sign language, deaf children are able to break out of isolation. American Sign Language is so much more than manual English. It is a separate, distinct language, complete with grammar structures, slang terms, and other rules. Many hearing parents are concerned about teaching their children sign language because they think they will lose their deaf child to Deaf culture. While deaf children find ASL easier for obvious reasons, I don’t know of any deaf child raised with ASL that abandon their relationship with their parents. Most even went on to learn English as well, and their ASL helped them learn.
There is a popular trend among many parents in the United States to teach their hearing children sign language, or baby signs. They rant and rave about how amazing it is for their child’s language development, and how nice it is to have their child able to communicate at a younger age. Why then, on the flip side, is it so common for hearing parents of deaf children to refuse to teach their child sign language? Many older deaf people in the Deaf community call sign language a deaf child’s birthright. Their native language, when born deaf, becomes ASL or LSM or LSB. Those same studies about hearing children learning sign as a baby should logically transition to a baby that is deaf.
The truth is, children in general are more capable than we give them credit for. Deaf children are no different. In my class, we were taught that it is easiest to learn multiple languages at a young age. American Sign Language gives the deaf child a foundation to build English on top of. The most important thing is it gives a foundation for social and emotional development, giving them the tools they need to succeed long-term.
Deaf education and development does not get the attention that it deserves. Parents of deaf children should be able to become educated when they discover their child is deaf. They should be offered a way to learn American Sign Language as well as be educated on cochlear implants. Their children do not deserve to be isolated because of their deafness. They were born different, and they should not be forced into the same mold as every other child. While they may have different needs and require a different path, they are just as capable of success so long as they are given the right foundation for stable social and emotional health. This can be done best through learning sign language.
The purpose of Live Deaf is to establish an online community where all people can come together to learn about the Deaf community and its present-day concerns. If you have any questions or wish for more information, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to hear about your own experiences too! If you’re interested in writing for us, contact that same email.