It Takes Time to be an ASL/English Bilingual

By Jean F. Andrews

The sign for Learn. Image: Lifeprint

Learning ASL and English does not happen quickly. It takes time as do all first language and second language learning. Delays in language learning is a fact in many deaf persons’ lives. But it does not have to be. Being deaf does not cause a language delay. It is the lack of access to language in the environment that causes the language delay. According to many studies, having Deaf parents who sign as well as accept their child’s deafness provide the best environment for language learning. According to Dr. David Geeslin, bilingual/bicultural environments that are set up in classrooms replicate the same home environment that Deaf parents provide. In his study at the Indiana School for the deaf, he found that it takes seven or more years for deaf children of hearing parents to show academic growth on standardized achievement tests.

Rochelle Barlow

Many Deaf inmates typically have language histories that show they were not signing until junior high or even high school.  Such delays in sign exposure severely restrict their abilities to use an interpreter when working with their attorney or understanding the courtroom proceedings. Simply put, they don’t have the language skills nor the conceptual and world knowledge base accumulated by hearing children through hours and even years of  parent, teacher and peer conversations.

Some prisons have a critical mass of deaf prisoners and have created their own bilingual/bicultural communities within the prisons. But these are few. Judges often ask defense lawyers, how can you get your deaf client linguistically competent to stand trial? An easy answer is; it takes time to be an ASL/English Bilingual.

Jean F. Andrews is a Reading Specialist and Professor of Deaf Studies/Deaf Education at Lamar University.

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