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Deaf Children:  Language Deprivation


By William Vicars, Ed.D.
Oct 30, 2000




 In the book Sibling Society, Robert Bly, discusses a study of deaf persons in which one group learned American Sign Language at a young age, and another group that learned the language later in life. According to the study, "only those who learned American Sign Language before the age of eleven could master the complete syntax."  Bly explains that conversation with grown-ups provides verbal stimulation which affects the growth and development of children's brains.  Deaf children of hearing parents tend to miss out on the conversations that their hearing peers tend to have with their parents.  Participation in conversation arranges children's synapses and enhances their intellect. He explains that the brains of young children are flexible and able to change--dendrites can develop new branches.  When children reach puberty, their brains are less able to create new connections.  Language deprivation can stunt the growth of the brain similar to the way vitamin deficiency can stunt the growth of the body. (1)

At a recent American Association for the Advancement of Science Congress in Washington, D.C. there  were two presentations which focused on the importance of early language acquisition.   Dr.  Rachel Mayberry from McGill University in Montreal explained that "the brain absolutely needs language input during infancy and toddlerhood in order to learn how to learn..."  Findings from the study she was reporting on showed that many little children who are deprived of language when they're young grow up to have severe cognitive problems for the remainder of their lives. (2)

According to Barbara Haskins, M.D., an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Virginia, language deprivation definitely affects cognitive function.   Dr. Haskins is a specialist in treating deaf patients on the deaf ward of Western State Hospital in Staunton, Virgina.  There is a window of opportunity to acquire language.  If that window is missed, individuals tend to display cognitive defects later in life.  Many of her patients were raised by hearing parents in rural areas who only communicated orally or in simple gestures.  In an article in Psychiatric News she explained, "My patients only saw talking heads and moving lips, which did not stimulate the left side of the brain that sets up rules for language and thought." (3)

Alison Gopnik, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley has pointed out that babies need linguistic interaction with adults.  Parents need to spend time talking to their children.  The time spent interacting with adults helps children to figure out how to deal psychologically with the world around them.  They are like mini-scientists conducting experiments.  They move through stages of development.  Language deprivation causes a baby to do worse at his experiments.  He is less able learn about emotions and psychology. (4)

The Prudential Foundation has been providing financial support for a bilingual, multimedia initiative titled "Sesame Street Beginnings: Language to Literacy."   This project is part of  The Children's Television Workshop.  Pamela Green, vice president of Outreach and Strategic Partnerships, has indicated the program is based on compelling evidence that shows a baby's brain growth is stimulated when the baby mimics the sounds he hears.  This research shows a baby's development is impacted by his first conversations. (5)

According to Peter Hindley, Senior lecturer in child and adolescent psychiatry St George's Hospital Medical School, if children are to avoid negative consequences in all aspects of their psychological development, they need early access to a sophisticated language system.  Hindley goes so far as to indicate that a child's mental health will be impacted by language deprivation.  He proposes that for children who are deaf, American Sign Language provides an effective language base for psychological and social development. (6)

A different approach to determining the cognitive impact of language deprivation on a child is to take a look at what happens to children when they receive the opposite of language deprivation--which is to say, "increased language acquisition."  A study of 140 families funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development showed that hearing children who were exposed to signing (in addition to speech) as babies have IQ scores averaging 12 points higher than the scores of the control group that didn't have additional language input.  Increased language acquisition results in a measurable increase in intelligence. (7)


(1)  Bly, Robert. "Disdain and Contempt for Children in the Sibling Society." Sibling Society. Addison Wesley. 23 Sep. 2000. <>.  

(2)  Swan, Norman. "Hearing Loss in Children." The Health Report. 10 Jul. 2000. Radio National. 23 Sep. 2000. <>.

(3)  Lehmann, Christine. "Clinical and Research News." Psychiatric News. August 04, 2000. American Psychiatric Association . 23 Sep. 2000. <>.

(4)  "Are babies smarter than adults." USA Today Magazine Dec. 1999. 30 Oct. 2000. <>.

(5)  "Sesame Street Beginnings: Language to Literacy." PR Newswire 7 April 2000. 30 Oct. 2000. <>.

(6)  Hindley, Peter. "Speaking sign language from birth can make deaf children confident." British Medical Journal 29 May. 1999. 30 Oct. 2000. <>.

(7)  Garcia, Joseph . "Scientific Research." Sign with your baby (website). 30 Oct. 2000 <>.

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