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What will become of American Sign Language?

August 3, 2009 |  8:00 am

Tyler Today's story in the Los Angeles Times describes the popularity of cochlear implant surgery for babies and toddlers as soon as they are identified as deaf. Due to advances in newborn screening of hearing disorders and the safety of the surgery, more parents of deaf children are opting to have their children implanted as early as age 1. The swift decision means fewer families and their deaf children are bothering to learn American Sign Language.

That raises a concern over what will happen to sign language in the years ahead. About 400,000 Americans are fluent users of American Sign Language.

Until the past five years or so, cochlear implants were considered risky for young children. Some teachers of the deaf recommended that parents wait and let the child decide whether to get implants or use sign language. But such advice comes with a cost: A child who waits too long to hear might never become proficient in oral language. As scientific evidence accrues that children learn spoken language better if implanted before age 3, the recommendation to wait has faded.

Still, some experts advocate learning sign language even if children receive implants. Learning sign language is a safeguard that allows a young child to develop communication skills prior to receiving the implant. And sign language is there if, for any reason, the implants do not help a child sufficiently.

“We’re trying to impress upon the medical community and on those who are naysayers that you can develop American Sign Language and you can develop spoken language at the same time. The brain has the capacity to do that,” says Debra Nussbaum, coordinator of the cochlear implant education center at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a famous college for deaf people.

“It’s remarkable technology but I do think it’s been overplayed and hyped a little more than it should be for all children,” Nussbaum says of cochlear implants. “The outcomes vary among children. I have seen kids who do great and others who still can’t speak well.”

Audiologists, doctors and teachers agree that the foremost predictor of success is how hard parents, audiologists and educators work with the child to make use of the implants.

“We don’t want to present to parents that [cochlear implants] is a cure,” says Margaret Winter, coordinator of the Children’s Auditory Research and Evaluation Center at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles, which performed the first pediatric cochlear implant. “We are giving them another avenue to access sound, and what they do with that information depends on many things we don’t understand. We know there is more to it than just putting a cochlear implant in a child.”

-- Shari Roan

Photo: Marieta de Lara adjusts the cochlear implant on her son, Tyler, 3. Credit: Anne Cusack  /  Los Angeles Times