Why parents of signing children don’t learn sign language: my perspective.

I read an article the other day about why hearing parents of deaf children don’t learn sign language. I’m sure that there is qualitative research out there exploring the “why?”, this may be the case for many families. The statistic that was used in the article suggested this was true for the vast majority of parents.This particular article concluded that the reason is quite simple; that parents just don’t want to communicate with their children. Whilst this opens up some interesting food for thought around quality of communication and loving relationships between parents and children irrespective of their hearing status, I do want to share my thoughts as to why I can imagine that families with deaf children who use sign language as a communication modality, might see the parents not learning sign language fluently enough to communicate adequately with their deaf child.

Statistics globally indicate that over 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents. For most of them, this would be the first significant interaction that they would have had with a d/Deaf person. This is not the same as meeting someone Deaf socially or informally. A social setting may see curiosity, an appreciation for diversity and a sense of intrigue regarding sign language, spark an interest in sign language. One, that if nurtured, may grow over time, and see the learning of sign language being pursued. This is usually a fun process; there is no real pressure, and your interest and enthusiasm has empowered your own choice to do so.

For many parents, this is not the case. Parents are often still immersed in the overwhelming reality of this new journey, where their grief can last a really long time, if the right support is not received. The grief stage of “denial” can become a prison, seeing a parent not in a place of empowerment to take purposeful steps forward that require effort and acceptance, such as the learning of a sign language. This is not something where you feel the freedom of taking as long as you need to learn, but there is a definite sense of unwelcomed pressure; conflict between wanting to for the sake of your child, and not wanting to because you would rather not have a deaf child in the fist place whilst complicated by a lack of confidence in your own ability to embrace something this foreign. I felt this struggle inside of me when first embracing the learning of sign language. I’d see people communicating in sign, where signs often looked so similar, and yet not, and thought, “Phew, this is just too hard.”

When considering learning sign language as part of embracing a total communication approach as a desperate desire to immerse my children in language, particularly because they were already 3 years behind due to late identification, one of the first things that came to mind, was what a school teacher had once said to me. “Bianca, your strength is in the sciences. Languages are just not your thing.” At that very moment, no algebra or chemistry mattered to me, but my insecurity in learning new languages was a very real battle in my mind that I needed to fight. My academic gifting may not be in languages (well, that’s not to say whether she was right in the first place; I’ve learned that school grades are not necessarily related to ability or enjoyment for that matter) but this time, my “aptitude” tests were not related to what I was now tasked to do. I was going to have to find strength in my weakest areas, and I can assure you that I fought the process, at least initially.

Having reflected on what got me through my mind-war, and allowed me to embrace the learning of a sign language (a journey that I have by no means mastered), I have an appreciation for why the task is often just so daunting for parents, which I feel is a large reason as to why many parents don’t learn to communicate fluently with their signing child.

One of the first factors for me, was flexibility and placing my child’s needs before my own desires. My first communication choice was pure oralism; spoken English. This was all I could deal with initially, as the consideration of South African Sign Language (SASL) was just the cherry on the top, of a situation that seemed too big for me to handle. As time went on (not a lot of time but a few months), I had to swallow a very bitter pill; the realization that my choice was not working…yes, this very same choice had worked for many a child with a hearing loss, but was not working for mine. I realized early on, that the delayed acquisition of language really was comparable to a form of brain damage. Yes, cringe, I used those words! “Cognitive delay”, “speech impediment” all these medically and politically acceptable terms are wrapped so carefully as not to offend. The problem is, that if professionals and parents, do not really “hear” the raw ugly truth beneath this palatable wrapping, the child’s intellectual potential is at stake, not to mention the socio-emotional consequences that affect every area of life. So, having admitted to myself that very slow – inadequately slow, language development would have been the result had I pursued the desires of my heart…I reluctantly pried my eyes open, and realized that my child is needing something that feels too hard, too foreign for me to embrace. Do I turn a blind eye to this, or do I brace myself for the anticipated icy emersion of something that scared me. Remember, grief whispers to most hearing parents, “this is too much for you”, and “having a deaf child is a bad thing.” And of course, with acceptance, phew, I couldn’t be more proud! What a privilege and honour to mother deaf children! But during the time of sadness, it also felt like the embracement of a sign language, kind of made them more “deaf”. I’ve since figured, deaf is deaf, whether you speak, or sign or are amplified in whatever way, you’re d/Deaf…but different people just do being d/Deaf differently. DECIDING to be flexible…this was not a passive process, was my first step in learning SASL.

The next step for me was constant, careful encouragement. My very first SASL “lesson” was in the living area of a B&B the morning after Eden’s ABR. I had decided that sign language was something I wanted to try, so asked for some assistance. Tears rolled down my cheeks, as my mentor taught me my first 4 signs; “mommy”, “daddy”, “bird” and “flower”. The realization, that this process really was going to be, a one-sign-at-a-time journey and not something that needed to be downloaded into my brain in its entirety, was a reassuring discovery. Our family was on a journey together, one that would enable us to get to know each other better, and one that helped me discover that simply, there is nothing sweeter, than the ability to communicate with your child. I have so much still to learn, and desire to grow and grow in fluency, but definitely think that the start was the hardest part. Now we have such fun with our sign language learning together. We are at the stage where I’ll need the sign for something, and not know what it is. I’ll turn to one of my girls who is the sharpest lip reader, and ask, for example, “What’s the sign for ‘prepare’?” and she’ll happily show me the sign..they love teaching me and they know that I love learning more from them, but mostly that I want to communicate with them. My littlest sausage enjoys playing with signs. She will know a particular sign, but change it, just to be funny or test me. One of her more recent games has been with the sign for “chef”. She knows the sign for “chef” quite perfectly, but every time we are discussing a chef for whatever reason, she signs “chef pineapple” and her little eyes light up as she does that, as she finds herself quite hysterical. Something that initially seemed like Mount Everest, has become a fun, unpressured journey of teamwork.

For me, the first SASL resource that I used made a significant difference. I had purchased a wonderful SASL dictionary,had been given a super SASL DVD (voice-off signing with captions), had downloaded a few similar clips and frankly, in spite of how great I view them now, when I was in the space of feeling so overwhelmed at the task at hand, I found these very difficult to learn from. The divide between the familiar and what scared me was just too big. I was given another DVD, this was a DVD conducted using transitional bilingualism. A hearing person, well experienced in SASL, was gently and slowly explaining the signs, saying things like, “the sign for ‘blue’ is this…(then demonstrating) it is kind of implying the blue sky….or for ‘green’…it’s similar to the sign for grass – green grass”. These sessions had intermittent words of encouragement about the process of learning SASL, and just about raising a d/Deaf child on a whole. This was the bridge that I needed. A bridge that allowed me to transition from a place off apprehension and insecurity, into the place a whole lot less familiar to me. Once I crossed that bridge, the conventional voice-off “native-user” SASL instruction, became something that I could embrace as the shackle of fear had been broken.

Most importantly on my journey of learning sign language thus far, has been the role of having a Deaf mentor or friend. Statistics show that the mentorship by a Deaf adult in the lives of families with deaf babies, allows for a faster transition between the grief stages of “denial” and “acceptance”. This is someone who is a glimpse of your child’s future. A glimpse that warms the heart..one that can recognize that, being deaf is not something bad, but rather something different. I’ve so appreciated the times my Deaf friends have afforded me; days on the beach where I’ve had to get over my insecurities and shyness, and choose to swim rather than sink, to many a chat over tea (somewhat cold tea as my novice signing meant for slow hands-otherwise-engaged conversations). These times have been more valuable than I could ever express, and have certainly assisted me, more than any resource, in continuing my SASL learning.

Many parents desire to communicate with their children, so much so, that this plays a significant part of the grief that parents experience when they learn of their child’s hearing loss. The perceived “loss” in not being able to talk to your child just yet, which was even more painful for me, than the “loss” in their not being able to hear. That coupled by the evident enormous frustration experienced due to difficulty in communicating, is further evidence to me that parents WANT to communicate. The challenge is, helping parents make child-directed choices for their children and then actually believe in their own ability in being able to learn to communicate with their kids, be it orally or in sign. Most of us are a little nervous of new things. When it involves your own children and impacts their future, nervous anticipation can be transferred to fear, and fear can be incapacitating. Let’s not only expect parents to be flexible on their journeys with their children, but let’s also embrace our own views, biases and preconceived ideas, and assist parents on their journeys, even if it means trying things that are unconventional.

I’m beyond grateful for what the pursuit of language has taught me. I’ve been challenged in so many ways, and realized, to quote Winnie the Pooh, that, “I am braver than I believe, stronger than I seem, and smarted than I think.” I truly believe that this parenting journey, is one of self discovery, as much as it is about child discovery; parents need significant support in this process. A process that can be wonderful.