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Bilingual Children With Hearing Loss

Bilingualism does not delay or disrupt the acquisition of the majority language

Post written by François Grosjean.

Note: This post is not about the educational approaches as such used with Deaf children - the author has always defended a bimodal approach - but about whether bilingualism, in two oral languages, or in an oral language and a sign language, has a negative impact on the acquisition of the majority language in children with hearing loss.

Some 1 to 3 children per 1000 suffer from hearing loss, many of whom are bilingual. Knowing and using two or more languages is a perfectly natural phenomenon but it is often perceived negatively by some clinicians and educators when it involves children with hearing loss. They state that bilingualism will delay the acquisition of the majority language, burden the child unduly, dilute his/her linguistic resources, even create language confusion. They therefore encourage parents to use just one language, the majority language, and to give up, or not start using, a second language, most often the minority language.

The counter arguments of those who defend bilingualism, and the minority language in particular, are many: parents and children can communicate in the home language (some minority language parents don't speak the majority language well), the bond between parents and children are strengthened, as are those with the local community, there are long-term benefits to being bilingual, etc. Their position is now strengthened by recent studies that show that being bilingual is not detrimental to children with hearing loss. We will cover three in what follows.

In a first study, Ferenc Bunta of the University of Houston and his colleagues compared the English language skills of two groups of young children with hearing loss: English-Spanish bilingual children, and English-speaking monolinguals. All children had received their cochlear implants and/or hearing aids before the age of 5 and all were given instruction and therapy at the Center for Hearing and Speech in Houston. The bilingual children also received auditory-based therapy in Spanish and their parents were given linguistic goals and strategies so that they could implement them at home in their daily activities in Spanish.

The children were given a well-known language test, the Preschool Language Scales (PLS-4), which assesses the developing child's ability to understand and use spoken language. The bilingual children were also given a Spanish version of the test. The results were clear: the English scores of the bilingual children were not significantly different from those of their monolingual peers. In addition, no difference was found between the English and Spanish results obtained by the bilinguals. The authors concluded that dual-language use is not detrimental to overall speech and language development in bilingual children with hearing loss. In their words, "Our data provide evidence that children and their families should not abandon using their home language; rather, they can and should encourage speech and language development in both languages if they choose to do so."

In a second study, published three years later, Ferenc Bunta and his colleagues wanted to find out if the bilingual children who were given support in their two languages did better than other bilingual children, also with hearing loss, who only received support in English. They matched the children on a range of demographic and socio-economic variables and gave them the English version of the Preschool Language Scale test. What they found was that the bilingual children with dual-support obtained similar results as their English-only peers on auditory comprehension but outperformed them on the overall measure as well as expressive communication. They concluded that encouraging home language use and providing treatment support in the first language may help develop both English and the home language.

The studies mentioned so far have dealt with bilingualism in children who have two oral languages. What about bimodal bilinguals, that is children who are brought up with a sign language, such as American Sign Language, and with a spoken, majority, language, in this case English? Here too some health professionals have expressed reserve, if not outright rejection, of a bilingual approach for children with cochlear implants and/or hearing aids despite everything that sign language brings to the child and to his caretakers. For example, it can be used to communicate early on while the oral language is being acquired–a difficult and lengthy process in Deaf children–, it helps them develop their cognitive abilities and acquire knowledge of the world, and it allows for normal parent-child bonding which otherwise can be very difficult. An earlier post reviews the many benefits of bimodal bilingualism for these children (see here).

Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, at the University of Ottawa, and her colleagues have just published a systematic review of the effectiveness of early sign and oral language intervention compared to oral intervention only. They took eleven studies published in the last twenty years that had between 13 and 90 participants each, most of them with severe to profound deafness. Their conclusion was clear: they found no evidence that adding sign language interfered with spoken language development, contrary to what some have maintained for years.

Thus, in the span of three years, researchers who have examined two very different approaches used with children with hearing loss–the oral approach and the manual approach–have come to similar conclusions. Bilingualism does not hinder or delay the development of the majority language. On the contrary, it brings many benefits to both the child and to his/her caretakers!

For a full list of "Life as a bilingual" blog posts by content area, see here.

Photo from Shutterstock.


Bunta, Ferenc & Douglas, Michael (2013). The effects of dual-language support on the language skills of bilingual children with hearing loss who use listening devices relative to their monolingual peers. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 44, 281-290.

Bunta, Ferenc, Douglas, Michael, Dickson, Hanna, Cantu, Amy, Wickesberg, Jennifer & Gifford, René H. (2016). Dual language versus English-only support for bilingual children with hearing loss who use cochlear implants and hearing aids. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders. Advance online publication. doi:10.1111/1460-6984.12223

Fitzpatrick, Elizabeth M., Hamel, Candyce, Stevens, Adrienne, et al. (2016). Sign language and spoken language for children with hearing loss: A systematic review. Pediatrics, 137(1): e20151974.

Grosjean, François (2000). The right of the deaf child to grow up bilingual. WFD News, 13(1), 14-15.

François Grosjean's website.

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