University of Edinburgh
Empower '97: International Conference on Deaf Education

Workshop 3: Foreign language learning and deaf children

Mairi MacAulay
Headteacher, Aberdeen School for the Deaf

General Introduction

When we think of Modern languages in today's curriculum, it tends to be French, German, Spanish or Italian that is on offer, with their origins in Europe.

I prefer the title 'Foreign languages and deaf children' as we live and work in a global village and global classroom. This would enable us to include Russian, Mandarin and, strangely enough, Gaelic because according to our last Secretary of State, Gaelic is a foreign language! He is quoted as saying that "only in certain circumstances should SEN pupils learn Gaelic as their second language rather than a modern European language"

Languages throughout the world must number hundreds of thousands, if not millions, considering the population is over 5 billion on this planet. (The 5 billionth was supposedly born on 7 July 1986!) However the number of mutually unintelligible languages is relatively small - just over 4,000.

Half of the world's population speak but 8 languages. So if you can speak Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish and Russian you can converse with over 2 billion people.

We're all well aware of the complexities for the hearing impaired of acquiring language. It is well documented and was touched on this morning by all 3 speakers. Let's just remind ourselves, however, of the complexities for hearing people alone.

Cartoon 'Peanuts'

Lucy: "I can't imagine what happened to Charlie Brown"

Linus: "He didn't really want to go camp did he? Well then I think it's quite obvious where he went."

Lucy: "Obvious? It may be obvious to you but it's sure disobvious to me!"

Lucy (to herself): "Unobvious? exobvious? antiobvious? inobvious? subobvious? nonobvious?"

Charles Schulz, United Feature Syndicate Inc (1974)


Boy: "Looks like you have a headache, Norman!"

Norman (lying on couch with ice pack on head): "Duh!"

Boy: "You might consider transcendental meditation."

Norman: "Transcendental??"

Norman" "What do my teeth have to do with it?"

Fagan, United Feature Syndicate Inc (1986)

When we begin to compare oral and signed communication in a foreign language there are some glaring observations to make. For example, on a recent school exchange trip, pupils from Aberdeen School for the Deaf visited a Deaf School on Gomel, Belarus. Within hours pupils were communicating adequately, exchanging information through gesture and shared signs. By day 3, there were no barriers to signed communication between the two countries - it was a real joy to behold. The hearing staff however had used their carefully learned stock of 6 phrases within the first few minutes of arrival and were totally dependent on a Russian/English interpreter for the rest of the trip.

Foreign languages and special needs pupils

What then are the attractions to SEN pupils in acquiring foreign languages?

1 European Community recognition of sign language

The European Commission wants to see the "European Citizen" emerging from this - not a British or German or French citizen. Funding is also being made available by the Scottish Office towards school links/bilateral projects' and the Scottish Consultative Committee on the Curriculum are using phraseology such as "Thinking European" in their literature. They cite case studies of integrating the "European Dimension" into the curriculum.

Schools are faxing, emailing and video-conferencing one another.

Local Authorities are talking about "enlargement" - that is the inclusion of Easter Europe and the Baltic states. The global classroom is with us.

SEN departments are thus being held accountable for their inclusion or otherwise of a foreign language in pupils' curriculum. Historically, negative reasons towards foreign languages are well documented for HI pupils - time, curriculum choice, poor speech, poor English, "they're DEAF!", etc. But I wonder if really we've been denying pupils a whole spectrum of opportunity by not having them access a foreign language.

2 Within Grampian Region 1994

Let's turn and look at some statistics of the uptake of foreign languages by SEN pupils within the former Grampian Region. The study was undertaken in 1994

Modern Language and Special Educational Needs

38 questionnaires were sent out and there were 29 replies as follows:

table 1

3 Scotland 1997, certification at SCOTVEC, Standard grade and Higher level

And now more recent results from 8 areas within Scotland for Standard grades, Scotvec modules and Highers in a Foreign Language by HI pupils: out of 8 geographical/local authority areas in May 1997, 2 areas presented 1 pupil each for Standard grade French, general level. There was no uptake of modules and or Highers.

4 The negative and positive aspects of foreign languages and HI pupils

When asked for reasons as to the low uptake the following comments were made:

"If they're not good at English there's no point in them trying a foreign language"

"It's really just the bright ones who do French"

"We've never attempted a foreign language..."

"We can't introduce another subject where they'd fail..."

and then the more positive final comment

"A 5th year option would be useful, eg French or Spanish sign language"

These comments were all made by our co-professionals - teachers of the deaf.

How, then, can we move on from this position in order to facilitate language learning for deaf people.

Options to facilitate language learning for the deaf

There are many options available to creatively introduce and enjoy a foreign language with HI pupils, eg

Sign language and school-based certification

Exchange visits

Staff study visit

Backing from the Central Bureau, 3 Brunstfield Crescent, Edinburgh EH10 4HD

SOCRATES, LINGUA, ARION: programmes funding inter-school links.

The one aspect we all have to face today is accountability and these programmes listed above are no exception.

Evaluation is an integral part throughout projects. I've included some Performance Indicators in handouts as an illustration of what a well-planned project will have: they list specific, observable items and so help identify needs and successes.

The funding bodies all look for Quality Assurance and these PI's may help point schools in that direction.

Technology has been a real boon for HI youngsters wanting to forge links with deaf people abroad: fax and email, Internet and video conferencing (take note however - £135 for 1 hour to Sweden!), CD-ROM, CD-i (French Sign Language) "Signs of the Future".

SOEID Folder "Europe, Language, Learning and SEN", Section 3E. This section deals specifically with the HI

A Way Forward

So, if we have the technology, the funding, the encouragement from the Government to become European Citizens, where do we go from here?

Within our respective establishments there has been long recognition that Standard Grade language courses are not the way forward for the majority of HI youngsters; Higher is still a distant dream!

Short modular courses gave some leeway but were not as practical as school-based courses. The way forward may well lie within the new Higher Still programme. The modern language courses cater for the majority of SEN pupils at Access 2 and 3 levels.

Access 2 and 3 for example give opportunity to focus on stock phrases, areas of pupils interest. There are fewer topics than Standard Grade; a shorter course and inclusion of the study of the culture and the country through perhaps an exchange visit gives maximum motivation. At Access 2 level, pupils study only 3 out of the possible 4 units, and 'signing' as a mode of communicating is accepted by the Scottish Qualification Authority and written into the criteria.

As we turn now to discussion we may want to focus on this last aspect of Higher Still and comment on moderation and assessment. The area of moderation is still under discussion by the Scottish Qualification Authority and we await with interest to see how this will proceed.

Foreign language learning and deaf children

Supplementary material



table 2