Speech, Hearing and ASL: A Response to Q & A “In What Language Do Deaf People Think?”

I found the Q (Cathy from PA) and A (Cecil Adams) commentary The Straight Dope:  “In What Language do Deaf People Think” to bring up many fascinating language acquisition and language learning issues that I wanted to make comments on.

I attached an article that I wrote with a Speech Language Pathologist and Audiologist titled Milestones of Language Development For Speech, Hearing & ASL.  Readers can refer to this article for an expansion of my commentary. The article explains the ideal situation for language acquistion for deaf children…that is being exposed to ASL from birth.

Cathy comments: “in what language do deaf people think? I think in English, because that is what I speak.

My reply:  language is not tied to the mouth and ears. It can be processed by the eye as in sign language.  Speech is not necessarily language. For instance, a parrot can be taught to speak but they cannot be taught language.

Cathy’s comment: Would they (deaf people) think in English if they use sign language and read English? How would they do that if they’ve never heard the words, they are signing or reading pronounced? Maybe they just see words in their heads instead of hearing themselves?

My reply: This is a complex question!  Deaf people can think even if they do not have a verbal language (English or other). They can think using their nonverbal intelligence. Of course, not having a formalized language will curtail their thinking and be limiting in terms of communicating and understanding complex ideas.  Developmentally after acquiring concepts, children acquire language to label these concepts….and then language and thought build on each other. Of course, this depends on home and school exposure to a visual language. Unfortunately, many deaf children are born into families where there is no strong visual language and the child spends a lifetime trying to catch up.

There are some highly functioning bilingual deaf adults who tell me they read and think in English (Deaf grad students). They may codeswitch to ASL when they come across a word they do not understand. But like other highly proficient bilinguals, they go directly to their L2 (English) to comprehend it.

Many deaf adults bypasss the phonological system and learn to read by visually comprehending print. So they don’t need to hear the words or pronounce them to comprehend them.  After many deaf adults will silently mouth the words as they are reading so they are using an articulation/lipreading strategy to decode print. Others read by translating the printed words into ASL to comprehend them. This depends on many family and educational factors.

Cecil Adams comment: Can you think without language? Nope, at least not at the level humans are accustomed to.

My reply:   Deaf people can think without having mastered a formal language–either English or ASL. The research shows that deaf people have the same intelligence levels that hearing people do. In other words there are some very bright deaf, mostly average deaf, and some very low cognitive functioning deaf people—the same as intelligence is distributed in the hearing population.  To be able to think, you do not necessarily have to have a formal language system. However, not having the language does curtail how you can express your thinking, build on your thinking with more complex ideas and understand and interact in your world. There are deaf people in prison who have no language but they can think. 

Cecil Adams comments: The critical age range seems to be a 21 to 36 month. During this period children pick up the basics of language easily, and in so doing establish essential cognitive infrastructue. Later on its far more difficult.

My reply: While the critical period (CP hypothesis) also called the sensitive period or optimal period for a first langauge acquisiton is birth to three years,  there are many deaf adults who acquired their L1 later and do just fine!  So in effect, deaf adults are an “experiment in nature” regarding this CP hypothesis.  Deaf adults acquire ASL at different time periods of their lives…early or late childhood, early or late adolescence or even early adulthood. The ASL is fully visually accessible to them so ASL becomes their dominant or most preferred language (their L1) and they continue to learn English as a second language (L2).speech hearing ASL development

Now many deaf adults who get caught up in the criminal justice system are weak in their L1 and L12 and this makes obtaining their Constitutional Rights extremely difficult or near impossible. 

3 thoughts on “Speech, Hearing and ASL: A Response to Q & A “In What Language Do Deaf People Think?”

  1. I have watched deaf friends while they were asleep and they signed in their sleep and told me later what they were dreaming. The signs they used mirrored what they said they had been dreaming.


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