Learning ASL as a Late Second Language Depends on the Strength of the First Language Foundation

ID: 4064
School: School of Language, Education, and Culture
Program: Linguistics
Status: Completed
Start date: November 2020
End Date: November 2020


Parents of deaf children typically receive two competing sets of recommendations about how they should support their child’s language development (Humphries et al., 2012; Napoli et al., 2015; Mauldin, 2016). One approach advocates for exposure to both a signed and a spoken language, or bimodal bilingualism (Emmorey, Giezen, & Gollan, 2015). The other approach advocates for exposure to a spoken language only, or oralism (Meristo et al., 2007). While proponents of both approaches are in agreement that deaf children benefit tremendously from early exposure to language in some form (Napoli et al., 2015; Hall, Hall, & Caselli, 2019; Fulcher, Purcell, Baker, & Munro, 2012; Geers & Nicholas, 2013), they disagree about the role of sign language in a deaf child’s early language environment. This disagreement is compounded by the fact that most deaf children are born to hearing parents (Mitchell & Karchmer, 2004) who are unlikely to know a sign language, highlighting a need to better understand which approach is most beneficial for deaf children’s long-term language development. Two major areas of debate, critical periods for language acquisition and bilingualism in one versus two modalities for deaf children are reviewed, followed by results from the current study, which investigated the benefits of early bimodal bilingualism versus oralism on language comprehension outcomes in adulthood. Results suggest that an exclusive focus on spoken language may leave deaf children at risk for poor language acquisition outcomes in their first language, as well as when learning a signed second language as a fallback. Early bimodal bilingual experience seems to mitigate this risk.

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