Language Acquisition: A Deaf and Hearing Comparison C.A. Keith

Language is a very ambiguous term. It refers to body language, gestures, written, spoken, heard sentences, phonemes, morphemes, homophones, and the list goes on. Language for a hearing child is complex and follows a very rigid common pattern. What happens to a deaf child’s language? Does this hearing loss weaken the development of language? Is language acquisition different to that of a hearing child? Do children with a hearing impairment face the same language acquisition hurdles?

“Hearing impairment is a term that encompasses all degrees of deafness, from transient mild hearing loss to permanent total deafness.” (Ling, 1984) However, this paper will discuss a loss of hearing that is permanent and severe enough to prevent a child from hearing spoken language. This paper will focus on the similarities in language development of a deaf child or non-hearing to that of a hearing child. The basic stages of language development which include the one-word speaker the two-word speaker, and the multi-word speaker will be compared.

Language follows a hierarchical pattern which is similar to both a non-hearing and hearing child. The structural stages begin in this manner; starting with babbling, and progressing through with one-word, two-word and to multi-word conversation. This is generally the order in which a child learns to speak.

Finding out my son Mel, who is now 25, was profoundly deaf, has brought forth language into a different light. Speaking, that once was nearly an automatic process, has now become more thought out, and a chance for me to slow down and think about the way language is formed and developed. After the initial shock, I started right into early development of language with Mel. Early intervention is key in all facets of language development, however, that topic is for another paper.
When Mel was young, I used every possible moment as a teachable moment for him to learn new words and then string those words together into two-word to multi-word utterances.

This paper is based on both personal observations of Mel’s development and linguistic scholarly literature. I was able to observe how his language developed similarly to above normal to the average hearing child of a similar age. An average
child in this paper will be defined as a child with no other physical impairments or handicaps that may hinder language development.

As indicated earlier, all children start with a babbling stage, “Deaf infants, who cannot hear others’ vocalizations, babble in the same way.” (Gleitman, 1991) Infants make sounds to make their demands known. They cry when they’re unhappy, giggle when they’re pleased, and make cooing sounds and babble. Mel made a lot of vocal noises as a young infant and child. Deaf children often stop babbling vocally once they realize they cannot hear themselves speak.

When Mel was a few months old he vocalized mom, ooh, ahh, ba, eee. These babbling sounds start out as sounds that lay the foundation for later speech patterns. Deaf babies babble with their hands like hearing babies babble using their voice.

The next stage in language development is the one-word speaker. This is a stage where babies start to utter single words. Gleitman refers to this period beginning around the age of 10-20 months. Gleitman suggested children understand, “A few words that their caregivers are saying as early as five to eight months of age.” This stage develops rather quickly.

This is the stage where there is a slight detour in language development between hearing and deaf children. While speech for the deaf develops rather quickly, it takes a slight change in appearance. Hearing children learn to vocalize their first words, whereas, the deaf child parallels this with the use of sign language. Some deaf children will learn to vocalize as well, with assistance from speech pathologists. They can also use what residual hearing they have with hearing aids, and their difficultly acquired lip-reading ability. Lip reading is an art like painting. It is very difficult to acquire for many reasons. The word detour is used; to show that while hearing children vocalize at this age period, some parents of deaf children teach their children sign language.

Sign language varies around the world, American Sign Language (ASL) and Sign Support English was used in Ontario to assist the deaf in acquiring language. ASL is recognized in North American, other than Quebec who have their own language.

As hearing children learn to vocalize the words, the deaf child follows the one-word to multi-word development of sign language. In the one-word stage, children at first learn nouns then move on to action words or verbs. Most of these first words seem to be words that the child is immediately involved with. Words like mom, dad, ball, duck, bird, hot, milk, and cat are examples of words in this stage. Similarly with deaf and hearing children receptive ability surpasses expressive ability. This means that they understand far more than they can express. Some signs require far more motor dexterity to perform the task and thereby performances mimic the correct gesture primitively.

In the one-word stage, a hurdle a child encounters is over and under-generalizing, also termed over and under-extension by David Crystal in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Over-generalizing is a term that, “Refers to words that apply to objects that share a certain feature such as common property of shape, colour, or size. Dog might be applied to other animals, or round objects.” (Crystal, 1987) Under-generalizing refers to a word with a narrower meaning. Dog might be referred to as the child’s pet only and likewise shoe may refer to the child’s own shoe. When Mel first learned the sign for light, he immediately associated light with all objects that were similar; lamps, night lights, upper lights, etc. He was able to match the word light at an early age. Mel immediately, expressed his excitement at showing every light in the house, with recognition, “Yes! Light,” I signed back. Mel followed the under generalizing pattern after learning the sign, ‘reindeer’ all animals were reindeer, and all men were ‘Grandpas’

Most babies tend to use sounds they know and babble frequently. At first they babble and everything they know is either a mama, baba, dada, and so on. They will play and babble. Deaf children tend to sign to themselves, what Crystal referred to as gestural babbling. This is the manner in which deaf children use the signs they know, frequently. Mel would sit alone and look at a book, while signing to the pictures in a book. He would use what he knew so that everything in the book would be a kitty, dog, bird, mom, Grandma, Grandpa, and all trees would be a Christmas tree. These are some of the characteristics of the one-word stage. Likewise, and interesting, Mel sleep signed as children talk aloud while sleeping. His hands would communicate in the air while he was sound asleep. He dreamed with sign and voice, when he could recall his dreams. m

The two-word utterances is the next basic stage in language development. This period is when the child progresses from individual words to joining two words appropriately together. Some examples include: daddy home, give bunny, me up, baby bath. From approximately the age of two, the child will emerge into this two-world speech giving rise to hundreds of different words.

Roger Brown and Colin Fraser coined the term ‘telegraphic speech’ in ‘The Acquisition of Syntax’ However, Noam Chomsky is often described by many theorists as the father of modern linguistics. He dabbled is cognitive science, analytical philosophy, political activist and linguistics. Many papers and books follow works of Chomsky.

Some characteristics of this stage include the appropriate word order and the bare essentials. Children begin learning language in the correct order. In deaf and hearing children, depending on the language learned, the order will be different yet correct. Typically, this is the recognized order when a young child is learning to communicate:
an actor performs the action: Mommy throw
an action affects the object: close door
an object is given a location: there milk
an object or person is described: doggie wet

That being said, deaf children using American Sign Language (ASL), start to change the order somewhat to defining the object first and describing it; ‘door close’ ‘doggie eat’ and more complex; ‘cookie want’ ‘car drive-in’ ‘Grandma where’ ‘ice-cream more’ At one dinner, Mel did not want any more supper and wanted to eat dessert. Mel signed: ‘no that, ice-cream want’ This phrase might suggest multi-word utterances or two separate two-word utterances.

As suggested earlier in the paper, early intervention is a key in language acquisition. The quicker and earlier one learns a language, the stronger and quicker the grammatical structure would be identified. However, difficulties such as different languages, delays in motor and speech due to other disorders and conditions, and environment play a role. Many parents, upon discovering that their child is deaf, do not know sign language, so language is delayed. If the child has no teaching of language, they continue with gesturing, and they fall further back in language development. Subsequently, deaf children with deaf parents or deaf children whose parents know how to sign, are far more successful with language than a child with hearing parents that have no experience with a signed language.

Fortunately, I had neighbours, when I was growing up, that were deaf. I started to learn sign language at a very young age. When I discovered Mel was deaf, I started signing right away, at approximately 9 months. There was no test at birth, to check for deafness at that time, fortunately, now infants are tested routinely at birth. Hindsight, often I would wonder if Mel was deaf, and then he’d turn around when I came behind him. It turned out he felt me rather than heard me. When my next son was born, we continued signing, and he picked up sign language very quickly. To reiterate, early intervention is key but that is a topic for future papers.

Around the age of 2 1/2, children advance beyond the two-word utterances. Their utterances become longer and make more fluid sense. They can say little sentences that contain all forms of a basic proposition and functional words. The child begins to string words together and progress to complex sentences in grammatical syntax. This process never really ends because people never stop learning. A new word, new languages, new meanings to old words become strung together in our already formed language. As we progress linguistically, our grammar and syntax advances as well. Again, depending on education, and the ease of the language spoken or signed, will determine the advancement of an acquired language.

Deaf children with signing parents or parents that sign prior, advance further and quicker than hearing children in language. Under the age of two, hearing children babble and gesture as do deaf children. Deaf children, upon identifying, the sign for casual nouns, verbs and adjectives seem to advance quickly.

Considering Mel, I watched, with ease at Mel’s quick progression of language. By the age of 12 months, recalling that we started an official language at 9 months, Mel was signing over 100 words. Most hearing children progress slowly. By the time Mel was 18 months, he was signing multi-word utterances and stringing sentences clearly together. ‘apple give-to-me, please, me hungry, thank you’ ‘shopping me go-to, juice-apple, me want’ Those were typical examples of several two to multi word utterances.

The only difficulty from there, concerning American Sign Language syntax rules, was that deaf children learn to write how they signed in their head. This clearly

demonstrates that they are learning English as a second language. As an adult, Mel is able to sign in ASL proper grammatical form and write and understand English language. ASL is more like French in its linguistic form.

Deaf children and hearing children seem to follow similar steps when they are learning languages. However, language has to be present from an early age. A child who’s parent doesn’t speak English well, delays the progression of language. Similar to most things, if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. Language is progressive. The acquisition of spoken languages open up to reading and writing of languages. The suggestion one might offer is practice often, talk slower, learn to speak and articulate clearly. My thoughts on encouraging baby talk, is suggestions for another paper.

This paper has revealed the systematic process children follow when they are learning to speak. Whether be it, vocalizing or signing, children tend to follow the three basic stages; one-word, two-word and multi-word utterances. One would think if a child couldn’t hear that language would be delayed and perhaps imperfect. This is not the case. In actuality, language of a deaf child, appear to surpass that of a hearing child. Mel has a higher vocabulary than most of his hearing peers, likely due to early intervention and the availability of a learned language.  Linguistic development alters when a language is not available to learn, where there is no education, and other physical, and developmental delays. When the word detour was used in the paper earlier, it implied that there was a slightly different path to follow temporarily while language was navigated. While Mel signed, his hearing peers of the same age, vocalized. Even if the deaf child is not taught to vocalize, one can surely see that the parallel in language acquisition is obvious.
Crystal, David. 1987. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. USA: Cambridge University Press.

Gleitman, H. 1991. Psychology: Third Edition. USA: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.

Ling, D. 1984. Early Intervention for Hearing Impaired Children: Total Communication Options. California, USA: College Hill Press.

Brown, Roger and Fraser, Colin. 1964. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. Vol. 29, No. 1. Blackwell Publishing.

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