“Natural” Language for the Deaf?

Sometimes I see articles and social media posts that imply, or flat-out declare that American Sign Language is deaf children’s “natural” language. This isn’t the case for me, nor for the majority of cuers that I know.

Language isn’t innate, and it doesn’t develop in isolation. Your L1 language is whatever you were consistently exposed to during the critical period of language development. You can also grow up with more than one L1 language simultaneously– that’s not uncommon outside of the United States. In fact, multilingualism’s demonstrable benefits for cognitive function is a big reason why I strongly advocate for learning both Cued Speech and sign language.

That said, as much as I love ASL, it is not my natural language. English is. I grew up with Cued English, and although I used some Signed English, I did not start learning full-fledged ASL until I entered college. I’m not an outlier here; I know several d/hh people who prefer English over sign, or are more fluent in English than sign, or learned English well before they learned sign. In fact, I don’t see very many “pure” ASL users outside of the residential school communities (most likely due to mainstreaming). The majority of d/hh people I know tend to use a mixture of spoken/Signed English and ASL.

This isn’t meant to be a value judgement; it’s just how things turned out. We were exposed to English growing up, so that became our L1 language– not American Sign language.

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.

Why Not Both?

Growing up, I never really saw a conflict between sign language and Cued Speech. Even if I couldn’t quite articulate it yet at four years old, I could tell they were different and didn’t see any reason to pick one over the other. As I got older, people asked me about the difference, so I’d tell them that signs are based on words and cues are based on sounds. Sometimes they’d ask me which I liked better, and I couldn’t really answer because, well, it was like comparing apples and oranges. Later on, when I connected with other deaf adult cuers, I found that we’d often code-switch between Cued Speech and American Sign Language.

All of this, by the way, mirrors my experiences with other languages– notably, Mandarin and my 2011 study abroad in Beijing with other international students. We jumped between languages a lot, depending on what was most appropriate for the context. (One of these days, I need to post my story about having a conversation in ASL with the one other hard-of-hearing guy in the program, after a semester of full immersion in Mandarin.)

Personally, I find ASL useful for expressing emotions that may not have an appropriate English equivalent, whereas Cued English helps me articulate concepts in a precise, orderly manner. Sometimes I’ll combine the two– for example, I may use a classifier on my left hand to show spatial placement or shape while cueing a description with my right hand. That’s just me, though; others will almost certainly differ.

Some people seem to think using both will “confuse” deaf children. Thing is, I know people in Europe who grew up speaking as many as five, six different languages. Why can’t deaf kids achieve the same thing through ASL and Cued English? We’ve got reams and reams of research out there supporting bilingual education. Personally, I think Cued English would tie in perfectly with the Bilingual-Bicultural educational model in residential schools now, and I’ve spoken to several educators who feel the same way.

That said, I do understand the concern about Cued Speech taking precedence over ASL, or favoring a purely auditory-oral/”fixing deaf people” approach reminiscent of the days of Bell (as well-intentioned as he was). No matter how good our technological and educational approaches become, there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution; and we will probably always have a varying spectrum of deaf people in terms of language and speech production.

A fellow cuer, Aaron Rose, recently said of American Sign Language and Cued Speech, “You’re comparing apples and oranges, but at the same time both are used to nourish the body.” And that’s really probably the best way to look at it.