Literacy in Emerging Sign Language Communities: The Impact of Social, Political, and Educational Resources
Deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) children who receive a strong foundation in a signed first language often show age-appropriate literacy skills in their second (written) language. These skills are commensurately weakened when the foundation in the signed first language is weak, for example, when a DHH child receives accessible language input later in development. Another potential route to a weak language foundation is acquiring an emerging sign language. Emerging languages have short histories, are still developing, and exhibit less agreement among their users regarding their linguistic structures. Therefore, a foundation in an emerging language may be weak simply because not all grammatical rules have been developed or standardized across users. Further, the socio-linguistic contexts of emerging languages pose unique social, educational, and political challenges given the relative novelty of the language and deaf community in that region. While no published studies to date directly measure reading and writing outcomes for signers of emerging languages, two studies investigate literacy in the sign language, and several studies have identified language and cognitive skills that predict literacy outcomes (in the spoken language). Our goal is to identify gaps in the research pertaining to literacy in emerging languages in order to develop research programs that address and enhance literacy outcomes for DHH children in all contexts. We begin by describing emerging languages and their contexts and situating them with regard to more established sign languages. We then summarize studies linking DHH children’s proficiency in their first (sign) language with greater success in cognitive development, which is also associated with higher academic achievement. We link these findings in established sign languages with results found among users of emerging sign languages. Finally, we discuss the social, political, and educational dimensions of emerging languages and their influence on literacy attainment in emerging language communities.