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American Sign Language: 

Deaf Children: Linguistic and Social Development

Its important in a discussion of this type to differentiate between the early language and socialization of a "deaf child of Deaf parents" and that of a "deaf child of hearing parents." The deaf child of Deaf parents is going to have a radically different experience in terms of early language input and socialization. His language development in terms of vocabulary acquisition, syntax, and pragmatics will be very similar in amount and scope to that of a hearing child of hearing parents. The only difference is that the deaf child will be using ASL (or if in some other country, that country's signed language) instead of spoken English.

The linguistic and social development of a deaf child of hearing parents is a whole different story and will depend greatly on such factors as early intervention, access to the deaf community, access to a visually-oriented language (ASL), and peers with whom he can communicate.

Most of a child's language development occurs because of social interactions with others, particularly with older siblings and/or adults. (I'd love to know how much of today's children's linguistic development is due to television.)  As a hard of hearing child I missed out on much of typical communication that occurs between youngsters on the playground and in the halls. At one point, (around second grade) the school administration kept me after class for a meeting with my parents. Much of the discussion centered around "what to do" with me and the problems I was having at school. I was somewhat of a loner at school. I was fortunate though that my parents, particularly my mother, invested many hours teaching me about words-how to pronounce them and what they meant.

My wife, Belinda, is Deaf. Her early language use and socialization could be considered fairly typical of someone with a bilateral sensorineural hearing loss of 70 (left) to 90 (right) decibels. She attended a day school program in Bakersfield, California during the school year and attended a Deaf camp each summer. She didn't speak more than a couple words at age five. When she entered the day program she started learning "sign language" --mostly contact signing and/or sim-com. On the playground she began picking up ASL from the other Deaf students. After learning to sign, her language blossomed and she started stringing together sentences, both signed and spoken. 

At an annual Deaf summer camp she was surrounded by Deaf adults and peers with whom she could communicate fluently and easily. Of all her childhood memories, that camp stands out. This is typical of most Deaf children of hearing parents who attended state residential schools for the Deaf. Hearing people have a hard time wondering why many of these kids cried when it was time to go home for the weekend. Deaf adults remember that it was at the Deaf school that they could communicate freely about any and everything with their deaf peers. At home they were often bored and had no one with whom to socialize.


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