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Dr Louisa Willoughby tells about her research into how migrant families with deaf children, negotiate the complex business of language choice, juggling English with the languages they brought from their countries of origin, as well as possibly learning Auslan (Australian sign language).

Louisa Willoughby: For all migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds, negotiating language choice in Australian society is a complex business. Deaf migrants and their families, however, face a particularly complicated linguistic situation.

Baby holding ballWhen the children of migrant families are found to be deaf, parents must make a number of difficult decisions about how to communicate with them. Historically, many deafness professionals have argued passionately for an oral approach, even going so far as to say that any use of sign language will be highly detrimental to the child’s ability to acquire speech. Advocates for sign languages counter that signing is the only natural language for deaf children and that all families who are serious about catering for their deaf child owe it to them to learn and use a sign language as the primary method of communication with the child.

The passion with which oralists and sign language advocates argue in favour of their particular communication method means that language choice is a fraught area for all parents of deaf children. Migrant parents, however, face the additional difficulty of determining the place of the home language in their communication system.

While the idea that speaking languages-other-than-English (instead of using English only) will harm a child’s language development has mostly died out among general educators in Australian, it is still, unfortunately, wrongly propagated by a number of professionals in the deafness sector. Many migrant parents are concerned when they receive this advice, feeling that professionals do not adequately understand what a huge demand it is to ask that the family use English only with the deaf child or the ways in which this might result in the child being cut off from their culture and family communication.

Let me tell you about a study into the language use of seven migrant families living in Melbourne, from which we can note several interesting trends. Although only one family uses their language of origin exclusively with their deaf child, another three use a mixture of English and their language of origin, suggesting that a number of families persist with language maintenance efforts despite the difficulties posed by deafness. Three families have switched completely to English however, and in each of these cases deafness was given as the key motivation for this language shift. While other factors play their part, parental English proficiency is often the most important factor in determining the extent to which hearing families continue to use the language brought with them, after settling in Australia.

Two of the families provide the clearest examples of parental English proficiency paving the way for language shift. All four of these parents are fluent English speakers but spoke their language of origin with their child until the hearing impairment was detected. They then switched to using English because of concerns that maintaining a second language would confuse their deaf child and/or would damage their English development.

In the case of family 1, Mrs N initially intended to revert to using only Arabic with her subsequent children but found that when her second child arrived English ‘just seemed much more natural’. Although she and her husband continue to speak Arabic with each other, they had not taught it to either of their children and seemed resigned to accepting language shift.

Within family 2, Italian fared slightly better as the deaf child is the youngest of three. Until her hearing impairment was detected, the parents had made wide use of Italian with their older children. However, the language has now disappeared from all day-to-day family interaction.

In cases where parents themselves were not confident speakers of English, proficiency issues might be said to be guiding their decision to continue using the language of origin with their child. It should be noted, however, that no parent explained their code choice in this way. Rather, family 3 framed their continued use of Arabic with their deaf son within the context of his post-lingual hearing loss at age two and their feeling that he would make better progress if allowed to continue developing his first language. And, despite his initial slow progress, he has now developed solid oral and literacy skills in both English and Arabic. Similarly, family 4, described their continued use of Croation in terms of preserving a link with family and life in Croatia more generally.

Family 5, though, provides an example where proficiency concerns were completely overridden by another key factor – the influence of professional advice. As a refugee who arrived in Australia without her husband or extended family support networks, Mrs I was in a particularly vulnerable position when her son’s hearing loss was diagnosed at eight months. Living in Perth at the time, she was advised by the local children’s hospital to speak nothing but English with her son, as any Arabic would confuse him and hinder his language development, they said. As she knew virtually no English, she found this advice difficult to follow, but did her best to comply because she believed doctors must know best. Unfortunately, this resulted in her speaking much less with her son than she would have if she had felt permitted to use Arabic and this lack of input when her son was a young child may well have contributed to his marked language delay throughout primary school. Further complicating matters, her husband’s arrival in Australia (two years after her son’s diagnosis) saw Arabic become the main home language, and the parents now use no English with their three younger hearing children. Thus, a situation has evolved where everyone at home speaks English to the deaf child but he does not speak or really understand the primary language of family interaction.

During the interview, it was apparent that this language situation was a cause of great distress for Mrs I, and that she felt extremely guilty for having followed professional advice against her better judgement. Furthermore, having seen how in other families that it is ‘perfectly possible’ – and that’s her term, ‘perfectly possible’ – for deaf children to learn multiple languages without becoming horribly confused, she has started to teach her son some basic Arabic but finds that he makes very slow progress. While the two of them can apparently understand each other’s basic Arabic, her son has great difficulty using Arabic with anyone else and is thus totally isolated from his extended family and from the Eritrean community more generally. On top of this, his difficulties with English and minimal exposure to Auslan means he lacks any language where he can comfortably express himself.

Although this incident took place over a decade ago, I have since heard a number of similar anecdotes of deafness-sector professionals who to this day are advising migrant families to shift to English or Auslan when addressing their deaf child. Moreover, in interviews I conducted with deafness-sector professionals it became apparent that many of them, while highly aware of the potential benefits of migrant families continuing to use the language-other-than-English with their child, felt ill-equipped to either advise the family on multilingual communication strategies or to assess the developing language competence of a multilingual deaf child. Clearly, there is a need for greater education about the benefits of bilingualism, the consequences of language shift and strategies for raising deaf children multilingually if professionals and families are to make truly informed decisions about code choice within the family.

Whether migrant families are deaf or hearing, patterns of language choice can be expected to change and develop in response to the children’s own progress in language learning and key events in the families’ lives. We see this first of all in Mrs V’s account of how she started speaking a mixture of Croatian and English to her deaf son in response to his preference for speaking English, and other concerns that he was not receiving enough input at school to acquire fluent English.

Similarly, on learning that their son was deaf, family 6 decided to gradually introduce English alongside Arabic during the preschool years and then increase the amount of English they use once the son started school in 2006. The family now has an equal number of ‘English days’ and ‘Arabic days’ each fortnight, a strategy they deliberately chose to try to keep the two languages separate and foster balanced bilingualism for their deaf and hearing children.

The code choice in family 7 followed the opposite trajectory however, with Mrs B reporting that she initially spoke only English with her daughter, but began introducing some Lao once it became clear that her daughter was making good progress with English. They now use a mixture of Lao and English with each other, and the daughter has also begun learning Thai. In this case it seems that despite the daughter’s initial severe to profound hearing loss, her cochlear implant has allowed her to make quite good use of her residual hearing, and consequently removed many of the barriers to language acquisition. While her mother notes that she makes minor mistakes when speaking Thai and Lao, she appears to have developed excellent communicative competence in both languages as well as having a strong mastery of English.

Taken together, the seven migrant families show quite varied linguistic responses to the children’s deafness. While all of them saw mastering English as vital if their child was going to succeed in life in Australia, most continued to value their language of origin alongside English and provide evidence that it is indeed possible to bring up deaf children bilingually or with multiple oral languages.
This survey of migrant parents is notable in that none of them reported using Auslan with their deaf children. Since Anglo-Australian parents are also often reluctant to use Auslan, this is in one sense a manifestation of a general trend. However, migrant families also face a number of specific constraints which can limit their use of sign languages.

Differences in degree of hearing loss and personal circumstances all need to be considered when deciding on the optimum communication strategy to use with Deaf and hard of hearing children. Whether this turns out to be the use of speech only, signing only, or a combination of the two is thus very much a personal decision. It is noteworthy, however, that many migrant parents seem to be less likely to opt for a sign-based communication strategy than Australian-born parents. In some cases this may stem from personal prejudice against sign language. However it seems that more often practical constraints mean that sign language is not seen as a viable option. Indeed, there is often fierce debate among deafness professionals about the extent to which it is possible and reasonable to expect parents who are recent migrants to learn a sign language at the same time as they are trying to acquire English, find a job and generally acquaint themselves with the deafness service sector – and life more generally – here in Australia. Many professionals acknowledge that, while it would be good for the parents to learn some sign language in the future, other settlement issues do need to take priority, and trying to push sign language at a point when families are struggling with so many other issues is likely to be counter-productive.

Low English proficiency also creates a number of practical barriers for parents wishing to learn Auslan since it’s usual for sign language classes in English-speaking countries to be taught by deaf teachers, using a combination of mime and written English to convey the meaning of different signs. The heavy emphasis on written English may provide a deterrent for parents even with quite reasonable oral English skills. And while sign language classes in major minority languages are becoming increasing common in the UK and US, that is not the case in Australia.

vicdeaf logoDr Louisa Willoughby is an Assistant Lecturer in the Linguistics Program at Monash University and researcher with Vicdeaf.

This is an edited version of Dr Willoughby’s chapter from the book, Making a Difference: Challenges for Applied Linguistics which was broadcast on the ABC Radio National Program, Lingua Franca.
Reproduced with permission.




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