“Forcing” Cued Speech on Students?

Many of you in the cueing community know about the furor over the Illinois School for the Deaf in Jacksonville, IL. For those of you who don’t, here’s a rundown: in 2011, the Illinois School for the Deaf started a pilot program that utilized Cued English in a bilingual program. Over the next two or so years, it expanded the program to other classes.

At some point last year, the school sent out a letter to parents that offered a Cued Speech track for interested parties. In part, this is where the confusion and controversy has been coming from. Some Deaf people have taken up arms against the use of Cued Speech in ISD; others worry that it’s being used to replace ASL.

A common allegation is that Cued Speech is being “forced” on students– in some cases, against their parents’ wills. The thing is, if you know anything about IEPs (Individualized Education Program), you know how unlikely that is. Each student’s IEP is determined based on what the parents choose, ideally with the kid’s input as well. The school cannot legally deviate from that IEP.

In other words, if the student’s IEP specifies that he be taught using ASL, then ASL is what he will (or should) get. Same for Cued Speech, Signed English, Visual Phonics, whatever.  Schools are legally mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004) to provide the best services that they can in order to provide an accessible education to their students.  This IEP is revisited every year for every student and they can change it however they want, whenever they want.  This is true of ISD as much as anybody else.

Of course, the law doesn’t always translate into reality, but with the increased publicity, ISD has a much greater incentive to be legally compliant. Trying to force students into Cued Speech (or any other method) doesn’t work out to their benefit in this case.

The Bilingual-Bicultural Dilemma

I’ve studied at least five languages. I majored in English, and minored in American Sign Language and Mandarin, including a four-month study abroad in Beijing. In high school, I dabbled in a semester or two of Latin and Spanish. (I highly recommend Latin as a starter language, by the way; it’s an incredibly useful key for any Romance language.)

The one constant in all my language studies was that at some point, you must immerse. Bar none, that’s the best way to improve your proficiency. Even my ASL instructors stressed this, and mandated that we had to attend at least one Deaf event per semester.

Yet, the one glaring exception seems to be deaf children learning English. Most bilingual-bicultural (Bi-Bi) programs I’ve seen address this by establishing ASL as a base language, and teaching all or most classes– including reading and writing– in ASL with written support.

There is some truth to this. Even with hearing aids and cochlear implants, deaf children don’t have the same access to spoken language that hearing children do. The bulk of our language proficiency comes through incidental learning, and for most people, it’s via auditory means. For deaf children, though, their primary mode is usually visual.

Hence, establishing English proficiency for deaf children is a toss-up between two general routes: either some variant of Signed English, which is much more faithful to English structuring, but tends to be functionally less complete as a language support; or American Sign Language, which is a complete language in and of itself, and as a result does not follow English structure.

The paramount objective is to establish a complete first language, ideally from fluent speakers. It’s much easier to pick up on other languages when you have a solid foundation in a base language. However, multilingual speakers will also tell you that the best way to increase your proficiency is full immersion– not just reading and writing, but also daily conversation with other native speakers. You can go only so far in studying a second language through your first language before you hit a roadblock. While proficiency is still very much doable– I’ve seen it several times, especially among prolific readers– it does get much harder. In my experience, you have to reverse-engineer. A lot.

How, then, do you reconcile these two paradigms in deaf education? By now, you know my answer is Cued Speech. It’s an 100% visual mode of communication that accurately represents spoken language in real-time, so hearing parents can act as complete language models for their deaf children without butchering ASL to fit English structure. And on the flip side, deaf children can attain full immersion in English, whether that is their L1 or L2+ language.

I’ve stated several times that Cued Speech would be the perfect addition to any Bi-Bi program. ASL would stay ASL, and English would stay English, and students would get the benefit of learning how to think in not only two languages, but also two different modalities.