University of Edinburgh

Language and Deaf Education: Into the 21st Century

March, 2006

Susan Gregory - Language, social interaction and the family

Notes from presentation

I want to start by thanking the organiser and inviting me to take part in this exciting conference. I was interested to be asked to talk about language, social interaction and the family. I have had a re-think and re-looked at some of the issues. This has been a challenge for me.

Language in the family - what happens as regards language, focusing on 21st Century - and the changes for families.

There is a tradition that presenters comment on the slot they have - I will continue this. I am not going to do so on the fact some of you had a very good evening, and maybe don't feel at their best today and that some have already begun to turn to home. We have had interesting presentations prompting me to re-write my paper as I went along.

Much of the material I was going to cover has already been covered by previous speakers. I will talk of some new things, but re-visit some issues raised - to bring us to some concluding thoughts.

We know very little about language and the family; little about what goes on in the home of a deaf child in terms of their language and their communication.

If we look at the family, research into families has mainly focused on social and emotional aspects of deaf children - not so much on language and communication at home. Much research has been of school age children and has focused on what has happened to children at school, and focused on language attainments. There has been some research too on interaction.

You might say that there has been lots of research on the language of pre-school children - think of the studies. But those studies don't tell us too much about language and interaction of preschoolers at home. Researchers look at two people - the child with one other adult and at a structured situation. Researchers don't like to look at anything like when children get up in the morning. Usually look at a child playing with a particular toy, structured situations

Most experience for children and in families takes place with more than one person. Most is fairly unstructured, from doing one thing to another. The most important thing is that most children don't spend much time with the focused attention of one adult. Children spend more time sitting in supermarket trolleys than in one-to-one play situations with educationally suitable toys chosen by researchers. This does not tell us about family life and interaction.

We may feel we know a lot because many here are professionals, some parents - we have incidental knowledge. Those of you who visit families at home will have picked up on dynamics at home. This means we do know a lot but it is not formalised.

There are many accounts by parents on having a deaf child. A language for Ben - in that book there is a vivid picture of a son - favourite food oranges, told by a teacher mother; who should make him say 'orange' before being allowed to eat it. Eventually he shrugged his shoulders and walked off instead.

I had a video of Mary - but because she is in our minds I will tell you now. It is about Mary as a pragmatist.

She went along to observe a boy in nursery. He was being denied treats because he wouldn't say 'thank you'. To get rewards he had to say this, but he did not so did not get rewards. He was signing thank you. Mary said she could not understand what was going on; when a child is communicating ‘thank you’ but it doesn't count. Seems very like Mary to me.

I will say a little about what we do know about language and children at home.

Drawn from research of the preschool deaf child, there are a number of points that could be put together. This will be my story for the afternoon.

Think about hearing parents with a deaf child - most parents of young deaf children say the biggest issue is communication. Language development is likely to be delayed compared with hearing peers. Communication before language - precursor to language development can be more difficult for a hearing parent to establish with a deaf child; joint reference for example.

Parent responses to a deaf child may be less contingent - they may be less likely to try to take account of what the deaf child is trying to say. The quality may be distorted; not because hearing parents are stupid. What happens when things don't work in the way you think? Parents utterances are likely to be shorter and repetitive.

A few points about functional communication:-

  1. Firstly - it may not be possible to give age appropriate explanations of danger. A parent may not be able to explain why child should not run into the road. The parent may be seen as over-protective – this is something to do with communication.
  2. Time may be more difficult to discuss; the need to wait, looking forward to future events, talking about the past. If you can't say ”just wait for two minutes then I will do it for you”, you appear to be saying “I'm not going to do what you want” - which can make life more difficult.
  3. If when someone comes to the house you can't talk about it with child - it makes making a coherent picture more difficult
  4. Co-operation and sharing may be more difficult to establish. It takes a lot of establishing - persuading children to share toys for example. Much language goes alongside this to teach social interaction. Frustration ensues due to limited communication, which can lead to temper tantrums with some children.

Today I’m not going to say much about deaf parents of deaf children - the issues there are different. Some of the issues at this conference have included the 90% of hearing parents with deaf children. I apologise for that. It is different - others of you may have drawn up different reason why.

Some find it easier to establish early communication than with hearing parents.

Deaf children acquiring sign language from birth have ability to acquisition language in a similar way to peers. Similar language base - similar milestones.

There are differences. They may be due to the mode of communication - visual communication structures communication and play in a different way from a spoken communication which is sequential. Different cultural with Deaf parents. From studies going on with literacy -deaf parents, attitudes and approaches seems to be established in a different way. A cultural difference probably

Now think about older children. Following convention of conference I will talk about my research with Juliet Bishop and Leslie Sheldon. Some information of use to us. A study looking at 82 families and 61 young people - young people in late teens, early 20s. I will focus on language and communication.

Not that interested about language being used by the young people. I will tell you quickly that 38% BSL users, 16% SSE users, 37% spoken language

That is the sort we are using.

When we talked to parents they varied whether in favour of speech or sign. I will provide you with two sample quotes - we ought to have been taught to sign from the word go. Another doesn't use sign language - doesn't need it

Impact of deafness of family life of young people as they grew up.

These families had good relationships with their young people. Parents were not trying to make their children into different people. Parents who were concerned for the best for the young people.

My family are very good. When talking round the table, if I miss it they explain to me. I join in. Only thing is, when we make jokes, I would like to laugh at the same time as the others. It might seem a small thing - but if never quite it sync it may be important.

They said they thought I knew already - 80% of young people. If anything happened they hadn’t known about - people expecting babies, families where marriage had broken up. It had not been kept secret, family did not know they had not picked it up.

Overhearing not normally needing re-told had not been picked up.

My father tells my mother so she can tell me. One or two members of the family may have much better communication with the deaf children. That person becomes a sort of intermediary. Almost always the mother - 25%, 20% siblings, 5% father.

Most of that was accounted by fathers who had a background of signing.

Mother responsible for all the praising but also all the discipline - she has to explain if father is pleased/displeased.

Relationship with the extended family - relationship with; someone saying: “I can't communicate with my grandmother. We love each other - but can't communicate”.

The involvement parents have with teenagers goes on for longer than expected. “My doctor asked my mother to come with me” – often asked in families with deaf children. This is an indictment of doctors and dentists, etc. Is the argument valid that with doctors it could be life or death? No driving instructor had such a problem but I would have thought this was as m uch life and death than doctors. It was never said that my driving instructor would need an interpreter. Something is going wrong - what is it?

What is it like from parents' point of view? Parents say they have to do a lot of explaining events, what has gone on. They say they have to manage social events; ensure there are many games the young person can join.

They say they have to do a lot of explaining of adverts, finance - get one free for example. They have to be explained to everyone, but more of a conscious thing they have to do to keep person informed.

The amount of incidental information that the young person could miss. This is not a criticism about inadequacy of the families.

They go on in families as part of ongoing discourses. Examples:

Mother got home to find car parked wrong way round. Said to daughter - what has happened? Daughter said: took it out for a drive. Haven't passed test? Daughter said: instructor told me to get a lot of practice. Do you tell people this - it is part of the sort of information you know.

A young lad said to mother: what happened the day the world went coloured? It used to be black and white they went coloured. Look at black and white on TV - world was black and white then went coloured. That deaf person was making sense of his world. Thinking of the information he had in a sensible way. Not the way everyone else understands the world. The black and white being something about cameras.

I haven't said too much about families - just a flavour of family life. This is an area that is under-researched. WE don't know about the dynamics within families - although we are free with our advice.

What is important for us to know about language?

We should know the impact of language communication on different families; for adults, siblings, young children, step-families coming together - what happens in these situations? Families do make adaptations but what kind - these will affect the language choices.

We need to know about the adaptations they make. What situations are difficult and what do they do? How are deaf family members included in family life and why is it important to know this?

The family makes a lot of decisions about language and communication. Harry [Knoors] said that professional advice about communication is something that families then implement. So families can say they are listening to the advice but do not necessarily do what they are advised. So families make the choices by themselves.

The role of the family in the child's development and well being. We sometimes don't take all of the families priorities into account; what about work, interacting with the local community, the extended family, etc.

We need to know because its important in order to provide appropriate support for optimal language development.

A number of speakers have already made these points but all of these things are changing in the 21st Century.

Sign language: it is a real current development. BSL now formally recognised and resources are available in terms of studying and developing sign language. There is a greater availability of sign language classes - 2nd most popular in the UK at the moment.

Sign language classes are not always appropriate for parents of a deaf child - they need more directional sign language training for use in families. The National Deaf Children's Society have a programme at the moment working on this.

Many more deaf people are now professionally qualified - working with families and schools. Also more teachers of the deaf are able to sign now.

Also the suggestion that hearing babies may benefit from sign - does this legitimise sign language? There is a much greater acceptance of sign language (see it on TV etc).

We have greater development in spoken language too. In 1991 the first bilingual programmes were adopted in 2 schools in UK and cochlear implantations happened at the same time.

In terms of spoken language the use of cochlear implant is more widespread in developing language in children - spoken language. They work for most children who have them and they do improve the spoken language of those who have them. They are here to stay and have to be part of any system we have.

Improvements in digital hearing aids benefit spoken language.

Early diagnosis means intervention can happen earlier and perhaps be more effective but we still need more research on this. Early diagnosis might help communication - it changes the decision-making process for the family. they are asked to think about language before language is acquired.

Thinking about a hypothetical problem changes the situation for families. We should take this difference seriously.

I want to talk about the context of giving advice to parents.

I want to make a strong point about having a deaf child - I think having a deaf child makes you different if you are a hearing family - the way the state, society and your peers deal with you. It is a big thing. If you have a deaf child you become the focus of attention of professionals. They are largely middle class, white etc - a narrow spectrum of society.

Professionals come into your home and ask questions they also keep records available on you in a way that is not the same for other families. This is a warning call to professionals - you are in a lot of power and that also means responsibility. A lot of people know or seem to know more about your child than you do - where they will go to school and how they will acquire language - this is disempowering.

Your peer group changes - advice usually comes from family and friends - if you have a deaf child then that changes - you are discussing this with other parents with deaf children or professionals. families may then feel estranged in some way. Other mothers that you had contact with prior to having your Deaf child may not know how to relate to you.

One mum said "I was a mother but I wasn't" because baby books etc did not show or talk about her particular situation.

The other thing that can happen is decisions about child care become more explicit - the consequences of professional advice implies there is a right and wrong way to do this.  I know professionals try not to give this impression but that is how it is perceived, that is, a right and wrong way to do things.

Also there is a big focus on language and communication. Language usually develops without planning and thinking - some do by playing games etc but it is not usually structured. It is hard to stop a hearing child from learning to speak - you would have to stop speaking to them altogether.

With a deaf child everything is taught rather than picked up as you go along. With language and communication the framework for advice may not take into account all that is involved in the family. The other thing that is important is that often advice introduces the idea that there are alternatives rather than lots of options.

Lots of speakers focused on options all being in play. Informed choice implies you choose one thing over another. How many parents have been told we have lots of ways to communicate with a deaf child - usually it is in terms of you either go with spoken or signed language?

Parents then complain that advice is contradictory. Parents don't like choosing between options; they don't like the notion of choice.

A study of cancer patients were presented with choice and then asked the doctor what they would do. They always want the informed professional to advise them. There is a medical and a cultural linguistic model of deafness and development of language is linked to these.

  1. The medical model: deafness is to be cured, make your child fit society.
  2. The cultural linguistic: about making society adapt to the child.

These models are unhelpful when we think about language choices and the language route that people choose. The dichotomy between cochlear implant programmes that oppose sign language and sign language development that opposes cochlear implant is something you can discuss with me later if you wish.

The Ear Foundation carried out a study on young people with cochlear implants. I want to look at one question they had to answer:

"at home I think talk is better. my dad knows a bit but I sign with friends"

"with my deaf friends I sign and with others I talk"

For these children there was no dichotomy - I use the best method in the situation that calls for it. I want to suggest that maybe our rhetoric about informed choice can get lost. We need to understand reality and families and about keeping options open in terms of language and communication.