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Bilingualism: Language Experience In Hearing Children Of Deaf Parents (CODA)

Laura Nicholson
April 2, 2008



A Look at Bilingual and Bicultural Language Experience in Hearing Children of Deaf Parents


            When it comes to bilingualism in the Deaf community, two types of people with two different life experiences immediately come to mind: one, deaf people fluent in ASL and taught English (generally of a written nature), and two, hearing children born to deaf parents, also with ASL as a first language, but spoken English a close second, and written English to follow. In this paper, I will discuss some cultural experiences when it comes to bilingualism in the Deaf community with a specific focus on hearing children of deaf parents who carry enough ASL to at least communicate with their parents, if not the larger Deaf world.

            Hearing children of deaf parents, often referred to as CODAs (Children of Deaf Adults) from the organization of that name, grow up in a household that can be closest related to the house of an immigrant family. In both cases, the parents of this household have lived their lives "speaking" a language other than the one most commonly spoken in their country of residence. Oftentimes, children are called on to interpret for their parents. As both R. H. Miller (a writer) and Keith Wann (a comedian) can attest, this often leads to deliberate misinterpretations from children. Often a child might not want to share information with a teacher, or else there is an attempt to tone down the emotions of a parent, as in this example taken from Mother Father Deaf

One time he [father] was just furious at this [store] clerk. My Dad told me to tell the guy to shove it up his ass! I remember saying something like, "well, my father doesn't think this is a good idea." (Preston, 1998, p. 54)

            A major difference, however, between a Hearing bilingual family and a Deaf one is that the vast majority of deaf people were born to hearing parents, and the vast majority of deaf parents bear hearing children (the numbers for both are widely accepted to be 90%). Thus there are issues with the generational gaps as hearing grandchildren become more valued in a grandparent's eyes than the grandparent's own child. In an immigrant family, "it is the parent who serves as the bridge between two worlds. Among the hearing children of deaf parents, however, …it is often the grandchild who lines these two generations" (Preston, 1994, p. 70).

            Yet there is more than simply a cultural difference--at least in those having grown up truly bilingual--but a biological difference as well.  A few studies have offered convincing evidence that significant portions of the right brain are activated when processing sign language, but only from individuals who were early learners of ASL and not so-called "fluent" signers who learned ASL later in life (Neville 1998 & Newman 2002). The hearing children of deaf parents truly displayed that they were a part of both worlds in that when reading English, the same areas of the brain as hearing English speakers "lit up," and while viewing sign, similar regions "lit up" to those of deaf subjects. Yet, the following can be said of the CODA subjects: "The activation patterns of these subjects, although similar, were not identical to either those of the monolingual hearing subjects reading English or the congenitally deaf subjects viewing ASL." (Neville 1998) To be truly bilingual from birth (or at least a very young age), then, may have an effect on the development and organization of one's brain, just as learning an aural/oral versus a visual/modal language would.

Growing up between two languages and two cultures always proves a challenge, yet it is particularly interesting to delve into the lives and cultures of two different subgroups of what can only be considered "American Culture." Growing up hearing in a world that is to some extent Deaf, and another extent Hearing (especially when it comes to hearing grandparents) is a difficult task. Interpreting is often required of a child, and he must grow up before his childhood has even begun in order to "take care of his parents." Yet he is the link between the Hearing and the Deaf. His brain is marked with the language of both, and he must reconcile the differences between each world while trying to find his place in each of them. If, in the brain, one could measure ones culture, it might be proven what many already know: a bilingual hearing child of deaf parents grows up with a mixture of cultures to match his mixture of languages. Perhaps it is enough to call the situation a type of culture on its own: CODA.


Coda International. Retrieved March 20, 2008, from

Miller, R. (2004). Deaf hearing boy. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

Neville, H., Bavelier, D., Corina, D., Rauschecker, J., Karni, A., Lalwani, A., et al. (1998). Cerebral organization for language in deaf and hearing subjects: Biological constraints and effects of experience. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 95, 922-929.

Newman, A., Bavelier, D., Corina, D., Jezzard, P., & Neville, H. (2001). A critical period for right hemisphere recruitment in American Sign Language processing. Nature, 5, 76-80.

Preston, P. (1994). Mother father deaf. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Wann, K. Watching2WorldsCollide. Retrieved March 19, 2008, from


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