Table of Contents
Education of Hispanic/Latino deaf Students
Trilingualism and Triculturalism Defined
ASL/Spanish/English Trilingualism Possible?
Understanding Families on Their Level
Finding Out About Deafness No Later Than Onset
Immediate and Continuous ASL Immersion
A Few Arguments Against the Teaching of ASL Refuted
Problems with Oralism
Problems with Cochlear Implants
Problems with Sign Language/Speech Combinations
Comparisons Between deaf Offspring
ASL Acquisition by Latino Parents and Family
Early and Ongoing Spanish and English Literacy
Residential Schools vs. Mainstreaming
Appropriate School Curricula
- The Why
NOTE: This author recognizes the difference between the
definitions of “Hispanic” and “Latino” and prefers to purposely synonymize the
NOTE: Throughout this paper,
“deaf” not capitalized will mean one who has a hearing loss sufficient to
significantly affect the acquisition of speech while “Deaf” capitalized will
mean one who is “deaf” and who additionally considers themselves a member of
American Deaf Culture.
Hispanics/Latinos now comprise the largest ethnic/cultural minority group in the United States.
The 2000 U.S. Census counted 35.3 million Hispanics/Latinos or 12.5% of the
general population. Those numbers are even higher today. By 2050 that number
will have reached approximately 102.5 million. In other words one in every eight
Americans is Hispanic/Latino now, and in less that fifty years one in every four
Americans will be Hispanic/Latino. Currently about fifteen million are of school
age: twenty-one years or younger (U.S. Census Bureau). Of these fifteen million,
nearly ten thousand are deaf or hard of hearing. This may seem like a
comparatively small number but it is actually 24.5% of the entire deaf/hard of
hearing student population in the United States, 41.4% of all
deaf/hard of hearing students in the West, and the majority (53.9%) of the deaf/hard of hearing students in California (Gallaudet
Research Institute). The dominant language used in most of these students’ homes
is Spanish (Delgado 2001). As the general Hispanic/Latino population increases,
so will the deaf Hispanic/Latino population. These demographics translate into
serious implications for the field of Deaf Education.
The history of education of Hispanic/Latino deaf students has been one of
misevaluation, misplacement, and misunderstanding. As early as 1972 there was
empirical evidence that Hispanic students in general in the United States
were overrepresented under the label of educable mentally retarded (EMR). This
was largely due to low IQ scores, which tested heavily students’ verbal English
skills (Mercer, 1972, 1973). The same kinds of blunders were occurring within
the Hispanic deaf population. Kopp (1984a) was already at work within the
Department of Communicative Disorders at San Diego State
University establishing an
outreach program for Hispanic deaf in 1970. Grant
was already aware of the need for a merger of bilingual education and special
education in 1972. The results of Luetke’s questionnaire to Mexican-American
parents of “hearing-impaired” children in 1976 revealed how frustrated a mother
or father could become when cultural and linguistic barriers stood between the
home and the school. During the 1979-1980 academic year, Delgado (1984)
conducted a national survey, which found that fifty-one percent of
hearing-impaired students from non-English-speaking homes were reported as also
having additional handicaps whereas this same incidence rate for all
hearing-impaired students was a mere twenty-nice percent. The following have all
been cited as reasons for these deficiencies: ethnic and racial bias,
misunderstanding of the language acquisition process, confusion as to the role
of culture in the learning process and curriculum, past experience with an
essentially monocultural population of deaf students, the desire to have
programs work for every child in the same way, and a general over-protectiveness
of the education of the deaf (Blackwell and Fischgrund). In the 1980s and into
the 1990s significant attention was paid to non-English speaking (NES) deaf
children. Concerned educators alerted the field of the shortcomings and
scattered changes were implemented. “However…” as Delgado
(2000) succinctly put it: “what evolved was a passing interest…No sustained
efforts occurred” (31). He and others attributed this misfortune largely to the
fact that all the attention and focus (of educators, of funding, etc.) was used
up in new bilingual/bicultural or “bi/bi” programs; the “bi” representing
ASL/American Deaf Culture and English/White American Hearing Culture.
Penetrating were narrow views that being Deaf somehow superseded being Hispanic
or Russian or Hmong or Black or Chinese or Native American or Filipino, etc. In
1990, Cohen stated the obvious, what many have known for many
years: that Deaf in this country are not only Deaf but have ethnicities too.
With the turn of the century came another valuable national study of Deaf
Hispanic/Latino students by Delgado (2001), only the
second of its kind. It was discovered of Hispanic/Latino Deaf students (among
other findings) that they no longer appear to be disproportionately classified
as multi-handicapped, they tend to graduate or complete high school programs in
the same number as non-Hispanic/Latino Deaf students, with whom their class
attendance is also equal, and a small but growing percentage go on to college.
With all these wonderful strides, it seems there is one essential ingredient
missing: almost none of them know Spanish well. This can alienate them from
their own family and ethnic roots and keep them from being as much “Latino” as
they are “Deaf” as was shown in Page’s study of Ethnic Identity in Deaf
Hispanics of New Mexico.
English then Spanish are the two most widely used languages in the United States
(U.S. Census Bureau). With the fairly recent success in allowing American Sign
Language count toward foreign language requirements in high schools, colleges,
and universities across America and with entire Deaf Studies majors popping up
around the nation, some believe that ASL (excluding fluency as a factor) is now
the third most widely used language in the United States (California State
University, Sacramento). In any case there can be no disagreement that in the
high-paced global marketplace of today, knowing three languages will undoubtedly
make a person, hearing or deaf, much more likely to succeed. If attained, it
could make up much lost ground had by Hispanic/Latino deaf students due to a
history of under-education. This being a valid reason for which one might wish
to be trilingual and tricultural, there exist many others, some much more
important. These will be brought up in the discussion section of this work.
In order to discuss trilingualism and triculturalism it will be necessary to
first define what is meant by these terms. Employing definitions from the field
of bilingualism, the term bilingual is
often applied to persons from certain ethnic/cultural groups without regard to
linguistic ability even though its derivative meaning is to be equally fluent in
two languages (Kopp 1984b, 69). Hereafter tricultural will imply somewhat the former, being a member of and
actively involved in three distinct cultural groups (American Deaf, Hispanic or
Latino or whatever the country of origin, and American) while trilingual will indicate the latter,
i.e., equal language fluency albeit in three languages (ASL, Spanish, and
English). By equally fluent it is understood that there is little difficulty
whether cognitively or linguistically with respect to input or output in any
language, all three languages having been acquired at an early age. It should be understood that knowing a language natively does not
equate to being lingual and possessing vocal speech abilities. Through the
medium of literacy one can be perfectly fluent in a language without being oral.
There is another perhaps sub-subculture which can also be traced, and that is
the Hispanic Deaf culture (Gerner de García
1995b). Hispanic Deaf culture per se will not specifically be addressed in this
work. However, cultural lines are never clear-cut and much of what will be
discussed is in fact part of what makes up Hispanic Deaf culture.
Perhaps there is significant disbelief as to the likelihood of truly trilingual
Deaf students. The roots of these opposing arguments are well documented. In the
1960s and 1970s there was widespread belief that two languages (and especially three languages) was far too much to ask
of children who were sometimes perceived as having no language at all when entering school (Dean 63, Grant 1984, 191,
Fischgrund 95). (It is important to note that in this era it was normally
assumed that to be fluent in a language required input in the form of auditory
stimuli and output in the form of oral speech.) Gerner de García
writes that opposition to trilingual education for deaf children may be more
political than pedagogical (2000). “It may be the result of linguicism, as well
as…the low status of the Spanish language and Spanish speakers” (162). This
linguicism, she says, “colors the widespread view of Hispanic/Latino deaf
children and adults. It is based in the racism that permeates this society that
holds some languages and cultures as more valuable” (162). As it turns out, the
bulk of the world’s population is actually multilingual (Tokuhama-Espinosa,
Sneddon). It is here in the United States that only one in seven speaks a
language other than English at home (U.S. Census Bureau). Far too often in this
country monolingual teachers are found in schools teaching children and young
people who are conversationally multilingual and who have the potential to
become academically multilingual as well as literate in their other language(s).
Indeed educators still to this day oppose ASL/Spanish/English trilingualism
(Steinberg et al. 30).
There ought to be little doubt in our time as to whether or not trilingualism is
achievable for with the passing of time and as more and more research has been
done in the field of linguistics in general and bilingualism and trilingualism
specifically, some significant findings have been obtained. They include: that
when two languages have equal status, bilingualism enhances rather than
diminishes cognitive and educational achievement (Lambert); that the ability to
know two symbols for one object or action promotes meta-linguistic awareness (Cazden);
that the deaf individual from a Spanish-speaking home who is required to learn
English may more appropriately be categorized as trilingual (sign, Spanish,
English) than bilingual (Kopp 1984b, 71); that three languages will not confuse
a deaf or hard-of-hearing child (Gerner de García 1993b, 1995a); that as long as
self identity is not in dilemma, being trilingual can boost a child’s self
esteem (Haydon); that trilingual children performed on a test of reading
comprehension at a level higher than children who spoke only English (Sneddon);
that by age eleven, trilingual children are doing better in school than their
monolingual peers (Sneddon). Finally, however small in number one need only look
to those Hispanic/Latino Deaf role models who actually
are ASL/Spanish/English trilingual such as
Marta Ordaz, Armando Muñoz,
Horacio Muñoz, etc.
The most complex question to ask is this: How is it all to be done? There is a
somewhat sizeable amount of literature concerning the most appropriate
testing/assessment of Hispanic/Latino deaf students as they first enter school (Zieziula,
Secada, Figueroa et al., Bennett 1987, 1988, Gerner de García 1995a, etc.). This
section will instead focus on how to facilitate ASL/Spanish/English
trilingualism before the formal
entrance into schooling. The premise is the following: it must be found out no
later than onset that the Latino child is deaf, after which ASL immersion must
occur immediately. Continuous ASL immersion should be followed by early and
ongoing Spanish and English literacy. Time may not necessarily be spent on
speech output or speech recognition. It will be obvious that the job of
professionals is to ensure Hispanic/Latino families have the essential tools at
their disposability and that with those tools it is ultimately up to the parents
to make certain their deaf child becomes trilingual.
One important point must be made before moving on. Before professionals can aid
Hispanic/Latino families with their deaf children, they must understand the
family in an historical, social, and cultural context (Blackwell
and Fischgrund 157). It is beyond the scope of this discussion to include
lengthy treatments regarding these issues. Readers are referred to such articles
as Grant (1984), Ramsey, Maldonado-Jackson, etc.
The importance of knowing as early as possible that a child is deaf cannot be
understated. Over ninety percent of all deaf individuals currently of student
age in the United States
were born to hearing parents, of whom the vast majority had had no prior
exposure to deafness (Gallaudet Research Institute). (Incidentally, despite its
many very real similarities, this is one of the principal factors that make
American Deaf Culture different from
other ethnic cultures: the fact that the culture itself is fundamentally passed
down through non-generational lines.) Because of
the low-incidence of deafness (statistics are blurry here but Moores (1)
estimates that early childhood deafness occurs in less than one child in a
thousand), many hearing parents do not worry to find out whether their child is
hearing or not. Many Spanish-speaking parents confront additional barriers when
they receive medical attention in English only or not at all. (Fortunately the
field of healthcare interpreting for Limited English Proficient (LEP) patients
is a growing one.) By the time deafness is diagnosed, the child may have already
missed out on many invaluable months of the language and cultural acquisition
process. Thankfully, technology now allows for simple, relatively inexpensive
yet reliable hearing screening tests to be done immediately after birth before
the mother and baby are even discharged from the hospital. Tests can be done
while the baby is asleep. Otoacoustic Emissions or Auditory Brainstem Response
can measure the reaction of the infant’s eardrums in each ear. In
California, the Department of Health Services,
Children’s Medical Services Branch (CMS) has a statewide Newborn Hearing
Screening Program (NHSP), which helps identify deafness or hearing loss in
infants and whose goal is to link them with services by six months of age.
The diagnosis of deafness in an infant or child has a profound impact on a
hearing family. Parents can experience a wide range of emotions including
disbelief, grief, anger, guilt, helplessness, and confusion (Ogden). Ogden
maintains that these are natural stages through which hearing parents must pass
and which should not be rushed. The NHSP type of program mentioned above can
work wonders with regard to early intervention. However, care should be taken
not to limit the kind of services and resources offered parents. Extra care
should be taken to ensure equality of access for Spanish-speaking families. One
recent study showed that culturally and linguistically appropriate resources and
services were indeed sparse for Hispanic/Latino Spanish-speaking parents of deaf
children. “Most parents relied on the professionals who were treating their
child to provide information, not only about hearing loss itself, but also about
available services, medical assistance, and the rights of the child and parents”
(Steinberg et al. 21). Throughout history there has been only one way of viewing
deafness: as a deficit or a disease to be prevented or cured. Too often medical
professionals today have only been educated in this medical or pathological
model of deafness and hence the attitude is passed on to parents of deaf
children (Steinberg et al. 28). Not often enough do these hearing parents get
early exposure to the social/cultural model of deafness, one in which deafness
is viewed not as a deficiency but a difference “that is part of the human
condition [which] places no limits on social, emotional, intellectual, and
academic development” (Moores 1). American Deaf Culture and Deaf adults are not
often enough present during the early stages after the diagnosis of deafness.
makes clear that for these hearing parents, the newly discovered deafness is
only about communication; finding a way to communicate clearly with their child.
(As it turns out, a substantial portion of Ogden’s book has
been translated into Spanish and would be a fair start for at least highly
literate Spanish-speaking parents.)
Now there arise many problems when there is no uniformity of home language among
Hispanic/Latino deaf children. The parents and children may be using some oral
Spanish, some oral English, some of their country of origin’s signed language,
some signed English, some ASL, some home signs, gestures, and/or a combination
of any and/or all of the above! Adults who are Deaf will consistently answer
that for them the eyes, even more important than the hands, are the lifeblood of
communication. It seems only logical then that a complete and independent
visual/gestural language would be the most natural native first language for the
child to learn. There is little controversy now that American Sign Language
fulfills all these requirements and more. Depriving a deaf child of his or her
natural language may be the reason why s/he never reaches his/her potential in
English language usage (Christensen 1993, 18, emphasis added). The Hispanic
families in the study by Steinberg et al. were more positive about learning to
sign and communicating with deaf people than were non-Hispanic families taken
from a separate study.
Without a doubt one of the most common arguments against the teaching of ASL as
a child’s native language is the fear of having the inability to communicate
with society at large as adults. This argument falls fast and hard in the face
of a Deaf person who has mastered English, much more Spanish, even if in just
written form. Written English and Spanish aside however, some parents are
discouraged when they are informed that first their entire family must learn ASL
for it to be an effective form of communication for their child. Instead of
looking at it as a guaranteed chance to learn fluently another language for
themselves and their other children, they fear it. If the parents are willing to
put forth the rewarding effort to learn ASL fluently, there awaits them good
news with respect to the society at large understanding their children when they
are adults. As it turns out, at no other time in history has any form of sign
language been as wide-spread among any
population as American Sign Language is in the United States today. Although it is
only used in the U.S.,
and several other nations to some extent, it is universal enough to make
possible some feats formerly not possible. Not only do thousands upon increasing
thousands of college students take beginning ASL courses each year, but the
concept of baby signs is also becoming more and more prevalent. Thanks to an
increasing body of research showing that very young children are capable of
expressing their needs and wants through their earlier-developed motor skills as
opposed to later-developing vocal language skills, many parents are seeing the
benefit of learning a signed language in order to communicate with their child
while the child learns to communicate vocally. Though many parents may only
learn very basic vocabulary, as long as it
remains true to ASL and not invented baby signs, it can create a foundation
as well as spark interest in the more complete learning of ASL at a later time.
This could potentially alter significantly the number of hearing individuals in
society able to communicate with Deaf individuals. For Deaf adults this
increasing number of individuals learning ASL may not always be a good thing
since it raises the potential for hearing individuals to be placed in jobs Deaf
individuals might more appropriately fill such as teachers of the Deaf. Ideally
the entire society should know the country’s signed language for discrimination
to equal zero and equality one-hundred percent. While this probably will never
come about, at least it is not as far-fetched an idea any longer.
Another argument which is now quite out-dated and inaccurate is that teaching
deaf children sign language will cause them to accomplish less in their speech
ability and/or their acquisition of English. (Research shows just the opposite.
See section titled Comparisons of deaf Offspring below.) Just as it is a natural
tendency for hearing people in general to mistakenly believe that sign language
is universal world-wide, it appears to be the natural tendency for some hearing
parents of deaf children to believe this archaic myth. Most likely they have
latched onto this myth because of what they have been told by medical and other
professionals who are merely perpetuating accepted practice in their field
and/or utilizing out-dated literature to make such claims.
[F]or parents not to communicate with their child in signed language is
tantamount to not communicating with the child at all. This advice frequently
makes the parents feel guilty (for not providing “the best” language
environment), angry (since they cannot live up to the professionals’ ideal), and
mistrustful (since the advice is counter to their loving desire to communicate)
(Lane et al. 29).
Steinberg et al. found that frequently the professionals consulted by Hispanic
families gave little consideration to alternative approaches and proposed only
one option for future education. Oralism was presented as the only option to
some families; however it was a combination of sign language and speech that was
most often advised as the only approach available. There are several problems
inherent in each of these two methods of communication for Hispanic/Latino deaf
First and most obvious, if oralism (without a cochlear implant) is chosen as the
only method of communication, the child may be destined to a lifelong pursuit of
reaching for a perfection s/he may never reach. S/he will have instilled in
her/himself that s/he has a disability and must overcome it. While it is true
that hard-of-hearing children may obtain more oral success than deaf children,
one must not forget that expensive hearing aids and auditory devices will have
to be purchased and regularly fitted and troubleshot in ongoing clinical
appointments at a qualified center. Most of all, however, the child must commit
much time and effort to extensive specialized training in speechreading
(lip-reading) and the use of residual hearing for a very many number of years if
any achievement is to be made. The problem becomes further complicated when the
family realizes the child might need double the training in order to learn
English and Spanish, with resources very scarce for the latter. One intrinsic
problem herein is that speechreading is a visual representation of acoustic
output and according to Kopp the two codes lack a one-to-one correspondence.
“When this input is distorted by being filtered through a hearing loss or
hearing aid, it is only the redundancy of speech (with consequent opportunities
for auditory closure) that permits intelligibility” (Kopp 1984b, 71-72). What is
more, “If the auditory stimulus at home is in Spanish and at school is in
English, opportunities for input/output confusion are even more probable among
the hearing impaired than the hearing” (Kopp 1984b, 73). Lip-reading and
learning to articulate a spoken language is fundamentally more difficult for
children who were born deaf, for they have never heard the language and are
unfamiliar with its pronunciation. It can be summed up by saying that on the
whole, “The use of vision to perceive a language code designed for oral/aural
transmission is, at best, difficult” Kopp 1984b, 73. Worthy of mention is
a study conducted with one hundred teenagers with profound hearing loss educated
orally. The study found no correlation whatsoever between student speech
intelligibility or speech perception and that student’s reading achievement (Geers
and Moog, Moores and Sweet).
A cochlear implant can range from being very successful to failing miserably at
its intended goal. For children implanted whose families use principally Spanish
(or any third language for that matter) at home and who happen to be in Total
Communication programs, the challenges to making progress in speech perception
skills appear to be even greater than for their monolingual peers (Levi et al.). Any caring audiologist will consistently
state that the success of a cochlear implant hinges greatly upon the efforts of
the school district in which the child resides. In addition to the standard
Spanish-English language and cultural barriers that nearly always exist between
Spanish-speaking families and English-speaking schools, there can be no
guarantee as to how “caring” the school district in charge of the child’s
schooling will be. Neither does it help that such a large proportion of
Hispanics/Latinos in the
United States live in low socioeconomic
conditions. Within these poorer neighborhoods, incapable schools and school
districts are abundant (more likely due to a lack of resources than a lack of
willingness). In any case it must be kept in mind that first, a cochlear
implant is a major surgery intended for very young children. Second, given
current American life expectancies, the foreign object may be inside the
person’s head for upwards of eighty years. And third, thirty-nine percent of
Hispanic families in the
do not have health insurance, the highest uninsured rate of any group of people
in the United States
(Aetna U.S. Healthcare).
If a combination of sign language and speech is chosen as the child’s method of
communication, a different set of problems arises. Once again quoting from Kopp:
…manual communication input/output code systems are quite different from the
oral/aural codes…. Simultaneous communication (sometimes called total
communication) requires the sender to process two separate motor output codes
simultaneously: speech and manual sign or fingerspelling. The deaf receiver must
process acoustic and visual input perceived simultaneously in three different
codes: acoustic, manual, and speechreading (1984b, 73).
that informal observations led him to conclude that “the strict use of exact
English [sign language] (i.e., of there being a precise one-to-one match between
oral and manual morphemic productions) is very rare. More commonly, teachers
omit endings, functors, and entire words in their signing; students often use
signs without either following English syntax or using extensive speech” (85).
Moreover, in order for LEP Hispanic/Latino parents to learn an English sign
system to use with their child, they must first learn English (grammar, syntax,
word order, etc.) and then the sign system, as it is the sign system which is
based on English, not vice versa. English alone for so many LEP Latino parents
is extremely intimidating and difficult, and their motivation for learning it is
influenced by a different set of factors and circumstances. One can imagine how
much more overwhelmed parents might feel when they are told that in order to
communicate fully with their child, not only must they master English but they
must also master a sign language system based on English. Parents even sometimes
attempt to throw out their Spanish altogether in a misinformed leap of faith
that even their poor modeled English will help their child with language
(Schaeffer-Dresler). The House Ear Institute’s (HEI) CARE (Children's Auditory Research and Evaluation) Center in Los
Angeles, California used to counsel their multilingual
families to adopt their child’s language of instruction in school as the primary
language in the home, without regard to the parents’ actual proficiency in this
language. “For most of our bilingual families, this demand was both unrealistic
and unsympathetic, given their need to find a balance between the two cultures.
Results of this retrospective analysis have encouraged clinicians at the Center
to adopt a more realistic and culturally sensitive approach when counseling
multicultural families…” (Levi et al.). Besides being unrealistic and
unsympathetic, it is very harmful to parent-child interaction since it
can make parents feel inadequate just when they are learning to cope with their
child’s deafness (Blackwell
and Fischgrund 156). More often none of the above expectations of
Hispanic/Latino LEP parents is realized. The child’s upbringing becomes what the
school makes of it since most individual communication takes place therein as
opposed to the home. Would it not seem practical for parents to concentrate most
on learning an independent sign language not based on any spoken language so as
to be able to develop as soon as possible intimate communication with their
child? ASL acquisition by Latino parents and family will be treated in more
There are many who observe the successful late acquisition of ASL by deaf oral
individuals who seem to be very successful academically and who can now mingle
in the hearing and Deaf cultures. They
then argue that oralism ought to be started early on to ensure the deaf child
has oral skills. Then, the argument goes, if the individual at a later date
wishes to learn ASL, s/he may do so. The fact of the matter is these deaf oral
and now bicultural individuals are actually exceptional cases, hence their
considerable notoriety. Many of them acquired spoken language first and later
became deaf. More frequent occurrences are that the deaf child falls behind in core academic subjects due to excessive
time spent in auditory training, the
family of the deaf child gives up on oralism because of its difficulty, the older deaf child resents oralism and
prefers ASL because of its visual ease, the
deaf adolescent finds s/he has to sacrifice extracurricular activities in
order to continue her/his oral training and stay on top of her/his
studies, the deaf student finds that
in less than two short years s/he has become conversationally proficient in ASL
only to disappointedly find out it may take five to seven years to become
proficient enough to perform academically well in ASL, the older deaf individual is only able to acquire a second-language
mastery of ASL as opposed to native language ability and may thus be looked down
upon within the Deaf community, or the
deaf individual gets caught in an identity crisis, finding s/he does not
completely fit in either in the hearing or the Deaf world. Dagenais and Day said
of the trilingual (hearing) children in their study living in Canada attending a
French immersion school: “It appears that these children have developed, so far,
a positive view of themselves as trilinguals, believing that they have acquired
a certain prestige by speaking three languages. Their sense of self reflects not
only their experiences and their contact with others, but also their parents'
values concerning language” (N. pag.).
Much can be learned by observing the similarities and differences between deaf
offspring of deaf parents and deaf offspring of hearing parents. The two groups
are consistently equal in their speech ability, social maturity, and
intelligence but differ greatly in the level of acceptance they feel as a deaf
child, one of the most essential factors for a child’s positive self-esteem.
Additionally, Maldonado-Jackson and Bockmiller showed that deaf children of deaf
parents continuously score higher in cognition than deaf children of hearing
parents and maintain this advantage throughout school. The principal difference
in upbringing is continuous exposure to ASL from birth. By providing this same
continuous exposure, hearing parents can attain the same outcome for their deaf
children. The general
acceptance of ASL as a linguistically true and complete language during the last
thirty years or so has been, in a way, the hearing population’s culminating
acceptance of what the Deaf population
has known for over a hundred years. In this author’s opinion, it would simply be
a pity not to use something that works so well.
If ASL is to be the first language of the Hispanic/Latino deaf child and yet the
parents and family of the child have no previous exposure to deafness (much less
visual spatial communication), a dilemma is indeed apparent. However if it is
known immediately that a child is deaf or will become prelingually deaf, options
can be immediately given parents who can then begin learning ASL thus obtaining
a head start before their child catches up to them in ASL ability (Christensen
2000). In dealing with Hispanic/Latino families, it must be remembered that
traditional maternal and paternal roles are usually present. That is, the father
is the breadwinner and is less often found at home while the mother is the
homemaker. Hence although it is ideal for both parents to become proficient in
ASL, the mother will be the key figure while the father may unfortunately not
even be interested (Steinberg et al. 28). Another key characteristic of
Hispanic/Latino parents is the almost universal presence of multiple children.
This means that the Hispanic/Latino deaf child will almost always have siblings.
It is a well-known fact that because of the differences in cognitive programming
before and after puberty, children in general are much more capable of absorbing
with ease new languages than are adults. These multiple siblings ought to be
urged into ASL fluency. They will also most likely be fluent in Spanish and
English, making them trilingual. It is these siblings who could become the
greatest pool of potential in filling the existing shortage of
ASL/Spanish/English trilingual professional educators and trilingual
It should be quite obvious by now that, as implied earlier, it will be extremely
difficult if not impossible to obtain success if educators are to deal with
Hispanic/Latino families in a language other than Spanish and on any other level
but their same cultural level. Many more ASL classes taught in Spanish need to
be made available (Delgado 1984, Christensen 1986, Gerner de García 1993b). In
1982 Christensen took it a step further than a mere
class and carried out a one-year trilingual education project. Videotaped sign
language instruction programs targeting monolingual hearing Spanish-speaking
parents of Hispanic/Latino Deaf children were televised at a weekly rate. The
series was accompanied by an illustrated manual with direct Spanish and English
translations of video scripts. The study found that the parents who faithfully
viewed the programs were successful in the acquisition and use of a rudimentary
signed language. Additionally, the parents’ attitudes towards their children’s
deafness were improved. An unanticipated finding of the study with extreme
potential for utility was that some parents were pleased to find they were simultaneously learning English as well (Christensen 1986).
Furthermore, that ASL can work successfully as a “bridge” between the two spoken
languages of Spanish and English has also been established by Christensen (1985).
Once and only once ASL has been established as the Hispanic/Latino Deaf child’s
native language, early literacy activities can commence. Among three-language
combinations spoken by individuals throughout the world, the ASL/Spanish/English
combination is a unique case in point in that two of the languages are
aural/oral in nature accompanied by a written form while the other is based on a
visual medium and for which there is no written form widely in use. Deaf in this
country use English to fulfill literacy necessities. For this reason
“triliteracy” is not necessary, only “biliteracy.”
Snow of Harvard University
has stated that the essential elements of parent-child interaction, which
sustain language acquisition in young children, are also present and sustain the
early acquirement of reading and writing. Videos are shown in Deaf Education
courses around the country outlining principles for parents to follow when
reading to deaf children. These principles can be applied to reading in any
language. Nevertheless it MUST be kept in mind at all times that when confusion
is present in a child learning three languages, the source is most often her or
his merely not knowing when each of them is being used (Saunders). A cognitive
overload does not occur as was believed for many years. It simply always and
consistently needs to be made clear which language is being used at what time.
Arguments continue for and against whether ASL is a sufficient base upon which
to build second language literacy (see Akamatsu and
102-104). If the bilingual/bicultural programs withstand the test of time, then
will it be known that a language as difficult as English can indeed be learned
well through literacy and in the absence of speaking, listening, and signing in
It must be realized that most languages originated aurally/orally and only later
were abstract symbols assigned to represent the acoustic information. Through
time these symbols have not been exposed to the same amount of change and
evolution as has the aural/oral portion. “Thus, the language which we read and
write often has not kept pace with the phonetic and phonologic changes of the
spoken language” (Kopp 1984b, 70-71). It will therefore be required of the Deaf
Hispanic/Latino child to learn both the formal reading and writing necessary for
academic advancement as well as the informal speaking (and say, note-writing or
2-way paging) of both English and Spanish.
Kopp states that the complex spelling rules and their exceptions do not make
English an easy language to master (1984b, 71). Those who must learn English as
a second language whether hearing or deaf can attest to its difficulty. Spanish,
as it turns out, is a language governed by rules that are only seldom broken.
This fact alone makes Spanish literacy much more attainable. Given this
difference between English and Spanish, it is expected that the bulk of the
effort to become literate in English will occur once formal schooling has
commenced (although Spanish literacy for deaf students should not be altogether
ignored in the schools as it has been in the past) while the effort to become
literate in Spanish can occur principally at home. It is therefore crucial for
the Hispanic/Latino parent to read and continue to read with their deaf child (not to
their deaf child) in Spanish. English literacy could also be introduced
prior to schooling but parents must realize that until solid trilingual school
programs are established in this country, the Spanish skill level obtained by
the child will depend on his/her exposure to it within the confines of the home.
This alone will also later serve as a language base for the acquisition
of skills in English. As Barbara Gerner
de García explained:
No one has to be taught to read more than once. Once a child knows how to decode
print, that child can decode print in other languages by transferring what he or
she already knows to the other language. This makes it possible for any child,
deaf or hearing, to become biliterate. Hispanic Deaf children also feel
empowered as they realize that the language they use at home is also something
that they can read (1993b, 84-85).
Once the child can read on her/his own, s/he
should be encouraged to read as much as possible! The activity should be made
into an amusing pastime to be enjoyed by family members together. A deep,
long-lasting appreciation and love for reading will do more for the literacy
skills of that individual (in any language s/he reads in) than any other single
factor. This is something the child will most likely learn from the parents and
should not be left exclusively to school personnel. Besides reading from
children’s and other books, written conversations with extended family members
not fluent in ASL can help to teach the informal ways Spanish and English are
spoken. Watching captioned television shows and movies is another good way to
learn informal language used every day by society in general. English-to-English
captions are very easy to come by. Spanish-to-Spanish captions are less common
but becoming more widespread. Dr. Tomás
García’s efforts to spearhead a
movement along with the Captioned Media Program and the California School for the Deaf at Riverside to provide Spanish-to-Spanish
captions of the story-telling, value-perpetuating, culture-maintaining movies of
the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema can accomplish much towards the literacy
abilities of the children under treatment (La Promesa de Un Tesoro).
If the Hispanic/Latino Deaf child has truly been immersed continuously in ASL
since the onset of deafness and if early and ongoing Spanish and English
literacy has taken place, the child will be well ahead of his/her classmates at
the time of formal entrance to schooling. This is the goal. But which school
will the child attend? This paper is not ample enough to include the debate on
the residential vs. mainstreaming approach to education. However several points
should be made. First, if the deaf child who is Hispanic/Latino is to become
truly tricultural, one of the groups s/he must belong to is American Deaf
Culture. It is a well-known fact that this Deaf Culture is passed on in large
part through the residential schools for the Deaf. Dr. Oscar Cohen, superintendent of the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York, has declared on more than one
occasion that residential schools for the Deaf as opposed to public schools can
much better serve the needs of Deaf students, especially multicultural Deaf
students (1987). It has been shown that the best medium for children’s learning,
especially during their young years, is their native language (Andersson and
Boyer). It is the hope that these multicultural Deaf students will be truly
trilingual by adolescence at latest (meaning that by then there is little
difficulty whether cognitively or linguistically with respect to input or output
in any language). At this early point in schooling, then, ASL is their native
first language. As far as the government is concerned with P.L. 94-142, the fact
of the matter is that the public school where mainstreaming takes place may not
be the least restrictive environment for the Deaf student whose native language
is ASL since there is no guarantee that communication among peers will occur
Because of the low-incidence of deafness, residential schools for the Deaf are
few and far between. The dilemma of distance to a residential school will always
come up. However, if all deaf students currently in mainstream programs of all
types were to make the shift back to residential schools, there would have to be
an increase in number of residential schools hence making them that much
physically closer to each family with a deaf child. Coupled with improvements in
public transportation, perhaps these residential schools could ultimately become
normal public day schools as opposed to “residential” schools. Of course there
would be other impacts inherent in such a shift. For good reason, most mothers
(not excluding Hispanic/Latina mothers) much rather prefer to have their child
live at home during the week throughout child-rearing years. To suggest to a
Hispanic/Latina mother that her deaf child would be better off living during the
week at a school away from home may be taken as an insult as though the message
were insinuating that the parents were not doing their best to take care of
their deaf child (Ramsey, 138). Additionally, given
that most Hispanics/Latinos have less marketability in this country than White
Americans, it is even more difficult for those families to simply up and move
close to the residential school, especially since they are not habitually
located in large metropolitan areas. Even so the Hispanic families in the study
by Steinberg et al. were reliably less inclined than non-Hispanic families to
favor the mainstream educational settings for their deaf children (61).
One of the goals of a typical bicultural curriculum for hearing children is to
provide the Hispanic Spanish-speaking child with conceptual data in order than
s/he can assimilate the new culture being learned upon going to school. If this
is not done, the child oftentimes knows only that something is different between
the home and the school. Then because of unintentional but powerful peer
influence, the child determines that what is different, that is, his or her
family and home life, is inferior (Fischgrund 102). Hence the high number of
Latino hearing children and adolescents who seem to be monolingual when they
begin school (Spanish) and monolingual when they finish with school (English).
They seem to somehow lose their first language. Instead, each language needs to
be given equal status. Even with the increasing population of Hispanic deaf
children, there are only a select few trilingual programs that systematically
address the needs of trilingual Deaf children (Gerner de García
1995b). The ones that do exist (Williams) need to be examined more closely.
Sneddon's report concluded that if the children's multilingual experiences were
acknowledged, they could be put to greater use. Once again as Barbara Gerner de
García explains so clearly:
The process of learning two new languages should not mean substituting the new
languages for the original language,… A Spanish literate deaf child should
continue to get support and instruction in Spanish while learning English. Such
a student may learn a signed language more quickly than hearing children learn
conversational English, but his or her academic progress may depend on continued
support in Spanish. Competence in ASL doesn’t eliminate the importance of
reinforcing academic content in Spanish (Gerner de
García 1993b, 81).
Several other aspects of an ideal trilingual program must not be forgotten, like
the inclusion of cultural-specific curricula. Literature, stories, history, etc.
told from the Latino/Chicano point of view must be a part of what Latino Deaf
students are learning about. Trilingual/multicultural staff is fundamental.
Adult Hispanic Deaf role models are indispensable Indeed they exist: Dr. Tomás
García, Dr. Robert
Angel Ramos, Mark D. Apodaca, etc. The need for trilingual
interpreters is great and should be even greater in the future (Gerner de
García 1993b, 1995b, 2000, MacNeil, Struxness). The
Texas Trilingual Initiative is in its first of a three-year grant obtained by
Center for Interpretation
of the University
of Arizona to establish an
ASL/Spanish/English Trilingual Interpreter Certification Program for the state
Trilingual options are already offered in Interpreter Training Programs at such
places as San Diego State University,
Community College, and Dutchess
Community College in New York.
The question of whether or not the attempt
be made to raise trilingual Hispanic/Latino Deaf children can be answered
logically. The mere fact that these children are deaf equates to the fact that
they are not hearing. This insinuates that they ought not to be thought of as hearing and should therefore not be educated as though they were
hearing. In his role as president of
University, I King Jordan
put it, “...deaf people can't hear. That's so fundamental and simple that people
seem to forget it. We can't hear. Therefore, we see. What language could be
better for vision than sign language, a language that was created to be seen,
not a language that was created to be heard and spoken.” This is why ASL should
be their first and native language. ASL comes together with its accompanying
culture and history, one of harsh struggle that is now triumphing. By being Deaf
in this country, these children have membership in a group of which no hearing
person can every completely become a member.
The overwhelming majority of these children are born to hearing parents. More
than most of these parents dominantly use Spanish in the home. These parents
have successfully resisted total assimilation into the larger White American
Culture. They are living within their own Hispanic/Latino-American culture. This
is the world these children live in at home. They have a natural curiosity and
desire to learn Spanish. To the same degree they learn the Spanish language they
will be able to inherit the rich cultural heritage of which they are a part.
They will be able to develop a firm and lasting bond between themselves and
their family and their family’s generations.
These children and youth are being raised in the United States of America. The
“language of this country” and much of the rest of the world now is English. It
is here they will most likely finish school, go on to college, obtain jobs, and
raise their own families. They will encounter on a daily basis hearing
mainstream Americans and this American culture will undoubtedly be a part of
their everyday lives.
It is not hard to see then that these children and adolescents by default live
in a trilingual/multicultural world. Denying this reality is contributing to
their failure. Denying them the three languages is taking away the very medium
through which each culture is passed on. Their parents overwhelmingly want them
to be trilingual (Steinberg et al. 30-33). Additionally, once a child knows one
signed language, this puts them at a predisposition to learn another signed
language such as that of their country of origin. Once a child can read and
write two languages their ability to learn more languages becomes greatly
facilitated. Indeed they will be much more marketable. But more importantly,
they will be able to choose who they want to be, whether Deaf, Latino/Hispanic,
American, or any combination of the three, specific or general, or even genuinely all three.
“The question for Hispanic Deaf children is: Can we expect them to be trilingual
or multilingual and biliterate or multiliterate? Children, including deaf
children, can become multililngual” (Gerner de García 1993b, 82, emphasis added).
This entire work can be summed up by using a quote from a Puerto Rican mother
speaking of her six-year-old Deaf son. She was living in Florida at the time with her other hearing
son and husband:
I want him to be trilingual when he is an adult so that he interacts with his
family in Spanish, that he obtains a good job, that he is well paid because he
can speak three languages, that if someday he finds himself in a group situation
where everyone is deaf, he will be able to communicate with them on an equal
basis, that he does not feel apart from the Hispanic group because he is
Hispanic, that he does not feel as an outsider with deaf people because he is
deaf, and that he does not feel as an outsider with English because he lives
here, it is the language of this country and he must be fluent. I think he will
have more advantages than other people. And for this reason, I want him to be
able to communicate in the three languages (Steinberg et al. 32, translated from
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