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If you want to see absence of language development, look at deafness

Posted By: Ross Mitchell on November 7, 2008
The following quotation from the second paragraph of the introduction causes me to recognize two ways in which the current discussion about English language development lacks adequate perspective in the grand scheme of things, so to say:

"Sadly, the views that non-English languages are problems and that more than one language can cause semilingualism have become erroneous axioms upon which many school policies and programs are based."

Here are the two points of perspective that I believe need to enter the conversation.
1) Except for the most profound cases of child neglect, no hearing child in America is at risk of delayed first language fluency development in the same way that deaf children are at risk.
2) The belief that English must come first and to the exclusion of all other language inputs is pervasive in American culture, not just in matters of schooling. Again, the just look to the experiences of families with deaf children, especially infants, to understand the strength of this monolingual prejudice.

As to the first point, I am hoping to alert people to the fact that language deprivation really does exist in our society and is a part of the broad spectrum of the human condition, but that it is rarely an issue for families and children that are able to hear and speak with each other on a regular basis. There is a big difference between limited vocabulary, which is a real distinction among families in the United States regardless of first language, and limited language ability. The former is far more likely to be the case than the latter among families and children with no communication disabilities.

More to the point of the article to which this response is directed, unconventional language use and incorporation of multiple cultural referrents, which makes for idiosyncratic expressions, need not be reflective of limited vocabulary and is certainly not reflective of limited ability. Children who suffer language deprivation do not make unconventional or idiosyncratic expressions in the way that non-native English speakers do. This is a very different class of language ability.

What I am trying to say with the second point, in part, is that spoken English chauvinism pervades the schools because it pervades the national culture. Moreover, this is nothing new. This feature of our culture has been the case for well over a century. It is one thing to be ignorant, but it is quite another to be inept, inarticulate, or idiosyncratic.

Differentially valuing languages is a natural part of the social order because of their centrality to identity, and their ability to radically constrain social participation, among other features. I highlight these two aspects because they are most central to the marginalization experienced by people who are deaf and form a large part of the basis for what is referred to as Deaf culture (schools for the deaf play a big role too). There is a lot I could say about the intense emotions and debates that revolve around how to communicate with and socially incorporate people who are deaf, but this is not the proper forum.

In sum, spoken English chauvinism gives rise to a disabling discourse about English language development. It does not represent what we know are fairly universal truths about learning and human development, namely, that we have to work with what we have (i.e., within the zone of proximal development) and that all languages represent profound human knowledge systems (i.e., they are not just signal conveyance systems).

I contend that by examining the human experience of deafness, and the social organization of responses to the condition, we can learn a lot about the truly profound challenges to primary language fluency development. Moreover, the perspective achieved by this examination will, I believe, challenge people to consider whether terms like semilingualism are truly helpful or merely denigrating. I pose that we ask everyone who engages this discourse to answer the following question: Are we contending with specific-language-affecting disabilities or how to respond to the range of language abilities (i.e., pace of development and variety of cultural referrents to those who have abilities in more than one language)?

Having seen the price of true language deprivation and inability, I hate to see people fighting over whether differing abilities in multiple languages is somehow an indication of disability. It is as though we are going back to the first half of the 20th century, when tests were used to justify segregated and inferior education for Mexican immigrants or who were of Mexican descent. Though most educators are not claiming to justify a substandard system of schooling for children who are not born into English fluent homes, this article clearly indicates that educatores are at risk of making the same spurious claims about fundamental inferiority of children based on their test performance as were made decades ago.

Maybe, one of these days, we'll learn about valid inferences from test performance? Maybe, in the not too distant future, we will be able and allowed to distinguish between intelligent expressions and conventional expressions using the English language? I don't know about the answers to these two questions, but I do know that the unconventional expressions of English language learners look brilliant and fully within the range of intelligent human expression compared to what is observed as a consequence of the tragic cases of language deprivation experienced by a small but significant number of deaf children (and the lasting impediment to language development that goes with that early deprivation).

Ross E. Mitchell
University of Redlands
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 If you want to see absence of language development, look at deafness by Ross Mitchell on November 7, 2008
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