Cued Speech and Sign Language: Establishing an L1 Language

Disclaimer: This is not meant to be a value comparison between ASL and Cued Speech. I’m sharing my personal experience with both in different areas, and it depends on several factors.

As a complete language, from fluent users, I believe both ASL and Cued Speech are equally viable.

The most important thing for literacy is establishing a complete L1 language, in any language. ASL, English, French, Chinese, Spanish, whatever, it doesn’t matter; just get that L1 language down. The best-performing ASL signers whom I met, at least in academia, usually came from a Deaf signing family, or had great access to complete language models in their educational system.

The big drawback with ASL (or any other sign system) is that most hearing parents have little to no knowledge of sign language, and most never become fluent in ASL. We won’t even get into the morass of all the variants of signed English (or pidgin signed English). For parents, I think Cued Speech’s greatest strength lies in the fact that it enables hearing parents to use their native spoken language, no matter what that language is, so they can act as a complete language model right away.

Another of Cued Speech’s benefits is that it has a much shorter learning curve compared to ASL. Generally speaking, CS takes weeks or months to attain fluency, compared to years for any sign language system. Plus, once you know the system and develop a good knack for thinking of English phonemically, you can cue pretty much anything without needing (much) instruction. I think the mental shift to phonemic English, as opposed to written English, is the hardest for most people to get past. It often trips me up too, and I’m a native cuer!

Earlier this year, I started working with a Vietnamese mother on developing Cued Vietnamese for her deaf daughter. English is her third language, and she wants her daughter to have access to the language of her heritage. Chances are her little girl won’t get that through sign language exposure within the US; how many deaf Vietnamese in the US are there who also know Vietnamese sign language– if there’s even a standardized Vietnamese Sign Language?

Cued Vietnamese, on the other hand, would give her access to spoken Vietnamese– and by extension, all the cultural nuances that language carries.

Cueing Pronunciation

A while ago, I had an absolutely fascinating Skype chat with Thomas Shull, a speech language pathologist and cued language transliterator from the East Coast. He runs DailyCues, which is a very comprehensive resource for learning Cued Speech.

I’d contacted Thomas because I’d been taking speech therapy since last fall, and a big problem I have is rhythm. I tend to talk pretty choppy and monotone– not natural at all. In our Skype chat, Thomas noted that deaf cuers’ speech patterns tended to match how their parents or transliterators cue. Being new cuers, the parents or transliterators often fell into the habit of cueing each word individually.

The thing is, that’s not how people naturally talk, especially when you throw into schwas. People tend to chunk words, or mush sounds together, especially when you have the same final and initial consonant next to each other (for example, “what do you mean” becomes “whaddya mean?”). The pronunciation also differs depending on the part of speech– another thing I’m still learning all about.

Thomas noted that when he paired deaf clients with a cued language transliterator who cued spoken language as it was pronounced in real time, and not as individually-pronounced words, these deaf clients’ speech improved measurably after about year of exposure: much more natural rhythm, better pronunciation, better stress.

I grew up with some bad speech habits that, at 25, are a bit difficult to weed out. I know I wish I’d been exposed more to Cued Speech growing up, at least from cued speech models who cued how they spoke, not just word-for-word. Much of language learning is mimicry– copying how you’ve seen others do it. That is how I retain information on correctly producing words or signs; I copy what I’ve seen/heard from native users. Learning these things as you go is a lot easier and more efficient than trying to work backwards from what you thought you already knew.