ERIC Identifier: ED414671
Publication Date: 1997-08-00
Author: Baker, Sharon - Baker, Keith
Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education Reston VA.
Educating Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing:
Bilingual-Bicultural Education. ERIC Digest #E553.
During the last two decades bilingual-bicultural education programs (programs
which recognize that children may come from a different culture and speak a
different language in the home than in the school) have flourished in the United
States as the ethnic composition of children attending public schools has become
more diverse. In the late 1980's discussion of bilingual-bicultural education
for children who are Deaf brought about new theories. (A capital D is used by
bilingual-bicultural programs to identify deafness as a cultural, rather than a
medical, issue.) According to Schirmer (1994) "the impetus for implementing
bilingual-bicultural programs for children who are deaf comes from two sources:
(1) The Deaf community, who advocate for the right to pass on their language and
culture to succeeding generations; (2) the overall disappointing achievement of
youngsters who are deaf. (p. 98) Although small gains have been made in the
levels of reading achieved by the average child who is deaf, overall achievement
remains considerably lower compared to their hearing peers despite ardent
attempts to teach Deaf children through Total Communication (see ERIC Digest
E559) and oral approaches (see ERIC Digest E551).
Additional impetus for bilingual-bicultural programs comes from Sweden,
where, in 1981, after years of grassroots activism by Deaf adults and parents of
children who are Deaf, the Swedish Parliament passed a law stating that people
who are Deaf need to be bilingual in order to function successfully in the
family, school, and society (Mahshie, 1995). What does it mean to be
"A person who is bicultural can move freely within and between two different
cultures. Biculturalism implies an understanding of the mores, customs,
practices, and expectations of members of a cultural group and the ability to
adapt to their expectations" (Finnegan, 1992, p.1). Bilingualism involves the
ability to use two different languages successfully. Some individuals may be
stronger in one language, some in the other, some may blend the two languages
into a pidgin (Maxwell, 1991). Individuals who are Deaf are considered bilingual
if they are able to communicate effectively in both American Sign Language (ASL)
and English or the spoken language of their country. They are considered
bicultural if they are capable of functioning in both the Deaf community and the
Although there is no standardized formula defining bilingual-bicultural
programs, they are founded on a common set of principles. A basic premise of
bilingual-bicultural education is that all children should develop communicative
competency. This is a challenge because more than 90 percent of children who are
Deaf have hearing parents or caregivers who must learn ASL as a second language.
Education programs that follow the bilingual-bicultural philosophy work with
parents/caregivers to help them realize the special linguistic, educational, and
social needs of their child(ren) who are Deaf and to help them realize the
importance of early language acquisition. Deaf children who develop language
late are less proficient than those who develop an early first language (Newport
& Sapulla, 1987). Helen Neville's research at the Salk Institute's
Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience also shows that children must learn a
language during their first five years or so, before the brain's neural
connections are locked in place, or risk permanent linguistic impairment
(Wolkomir, 1992). "What suffers is the ability to learn grammar. As children
mature, their brain organization becomes increasingly rigid. By puberty, it is
largely complete. This spells trouble because most deaf youngsters learn
language late; their parents are hearing and do not know ASL, and the children
have little or no contact with deaf people when young." (p. 36)
Since it is the grammar of languages that distinguishes them most
significantly from one another (most spoken languages have similar pragmatic or
social functions and similar sound systems), the early assault on the ability to
learn grammar makes the development of a sound language system even more
Bilingual-bicultural programs differ from other programs most notably by
their approach to first language acquisition. While bilingual-bicultural
programs have respect for both ASL and English, these programs advocate for ASL
to be the first language of children who are deaf. "Research has shown that
effective language has to be fast and clear. ASL is an efficient language for
visual learning and is easier for Deaf children to acquire as a first language
than any form of English" (Finnegan, 1992, p. 7). Johnson, Liddell, Ertling
(1989) stated that ASL is the language choice of adults who are deaf, and it
offers access to the school curriculum and other world knowledge. A solid
foundation in a first language leads to better English performance over time,
and skills transfer from one language to another.
Teaching ASL as the first language for Deaf children has additional benefits.
ASL is the language of Deaf people throughout the United States. Proficiency in
ASL automatically allows membership in the Deaf community and in cultural events
that occur in communities where Deaf people live. This membership is vital to
Deaf children because it promotes a healthy view of who they are as human beings
and increases self-esteem and confidence in their abilities to interact in a
wide array of situations.
The bilingual-bicultural approach recognizes that ASL and English are two
distinct languages in the same way that, for example, French and German are
distinct languages. ASL is a complete language with its own grammar, syntax, and
rules for interaction. Signing ASL and speaking English cannot be performed
simultaneously with a great degree of success; therefore, when signing ASL one
should not attempt to speak English. Speaking English when signing deteriorates
the visual signal resulting in an inferior production of signs as well as
inferior use of spoken English. The goal is clear and proficient production of
Proponents of the bilingual-bicultural approach believe that Deaf children
are not deficient. Instead of being auditory learners, they are visual learners.
Deaf children do not need remedial teaching strategies because the
bilingual-bicultural program provides a unique visual learning environment in
which their linguistic, cultural, and social needs are met. Deaf teachers,
administrators, and support staff are considered valuable components of the
bilingual-bicultural program. The bilingual-bicultural approach does not support
mainstreaming Deaf children in regular education programs. Many Deaf adults have
shared their stories of isolation and academic deprivation while attending
schools for children who can hear. The bilingual-bicultural approach holds that
cognitive, linguistic, and social competence are best achieved in environments
that provide full communicative access to the curriculum.
Who can choose a bilingual-bicultural option?
Proponents of the bilingual-bicultural option feel that all children, no
matter what their degree of hearing loss, would benefit from a
bilingual-bicultural option. However, it is most likely that these programs will
exist separate from the mainstream education agencies and buildings. Some may be
residential, some may be day schools. Parents or caregivers who feel that this
approach is appropriate for their child should call the residential school for
Deaf children in their home state. Although a growing number of schools for
children who are deaf have adopted bilingual-bicultural programming, families in
rural areas may not have access to this approach.
What are the benefits of a bilingual-bicultural option?
There are several benefits of bilingual-bicultural education. Early access to
comprehensible language fosters early cognitive development which, in turn,
promotes increased literacy and greater academic achievement. Students who
attend bilingual-bicultural programs develop functional skills in two languages.
The emphasis on early language acquisition and establishing a first language
(ASL) provides a base upon which English is subsequently taught. Students in
bilingual-bicultural programs have increased self-esteem and confidence due to
the healthy view of Deaf children, acceptance of who they are as human beings,
and increased confidence to function in bilingual-bicultural environments.
What are the limitations of a bilingual-bicultural option?
Bilingual-bicultural programs in the United States are still relatively new.
Limited data are available regarding students' achievement in these programs. As
schools begin bilingual- bicultural programs, schools may have difficulty
recruiting native signers of ASL because their numbers are limited. Further,
while staff may have excellent skills in signed English, they often do not have
proficient ASL skills and must be retrained. Some opposition may result in this
effort. At this time, most university education programs continue to prepare
teachers of the deaf in the philosophy of Total Communication. Generally, the
level of sign language proficiency required by most universities, states, and
certifying agencies is inadequate.
Lack of ASL classes for parents or caregivers, especially in rural areas, may
severely restrict communication in the home. Without fluent language models,
Deaf children's language will be developed neither optimally nor naturally.
What are some questions to ask in choosing this option?
How many of the educational staff are native ASL signers and/or fluent ASL
signers? How are signing skills evaluated? How is English developed? When is
English introduced in the curriculum? What support is given to parents or
caregivers to learn ASL? How are children who developed language late or have
limited language proficiency treated in this type of program? How does the
curriculum compare to that of hearing children? Where do you recruit staff? How
will I know if my child is progressing adequately?
Bicultural Center, 5506 Kenilworth Ave., Suite
105, Riverdale, MD 20737-3106, (301) 277-3945 (V); (301) 277-3944 (TTY).
California School for the Deaf, 30350 Gallaudet Dr., Fremont, CA 94538, (510)
Finnegan, M. (1992). Bilingual-bicultural education. The Endeavor, 3, 1-8.
The American Society for Deaf Children.
Johnson, R., Liddell, S., & Erting, C. (1989). Unlocking the curriculum:
Principles for achieving access in deaf education. Washington, DC: Gallaudet
Learning Center for Deaf Children, 848 Central St., Framingham, MA 01701,
(508) 875-5110 (V/TTY). Mahshie, S. (1995). Educating deaf children bilingually.
Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.
Maxwell, M. (1991). Characteristics of a successful bilingual program. In
Proceedings of the New Orleans CAID/CEASD Convention.
Newport, E. & Sapulla, T. (1987). A critical period effect in the
acquisition of a primary language. Unpublished manuscript.
Schirmer, B. (1994). Language and literacy development in children who are
deaf. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co.
Wolkomir, R. (1992). American Sign Language: It's not mouth stuff--it's brain
stuff. Smithsonian, 23 (4), 30-41.