Where Deaf studies meets language maintenance

Report
Louisa Willoughby
Monash University and the Victorian Deaf Society
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Deaf people from migrant backgrounds may use a
variety of communication strategies, including:
Foreign sign language use – very rare
Home signs
Oral skills in native spoken language and/or English
Formal Auslan (Australian Sign Language) – usually learned as
a second language after arrival in Australia
◦ Combination of all of the above
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Auslan and English widely taught through the school
system, but only limited opportunities for non-English
speaking parents or adult deaf migrants to learn
Auslan; and no speech pathology for languages other
than English
Minimal supports for deaf people to access adult
English classes
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Seven families interviewed
Most families recruited through a highly multiethnic primary school deaf facility where the
teacher in charge was enthusiastic about the
project and promoted it heavily to her parents
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Other families found through personal networks
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Variety of backgrounds and migration histories
◦ Families speak Arabic, Italian, Lao, Croatian and Tigre
◦ Children from families B and V born overseas, came to
Australia as preschoolers in order to access cochlear
implants; others all Australian-born
Family
Ethnic
background
Main language used
to deaf child
Equal amounts Lao
and English
Main language used
in other family
interactions
Equal amounts Lao
and English
Child’s hearing loss
and amplification
devices
Severe-profound,
cochlear implant
Family B
Family I
Lao (mother)
Australian
(father)
Eritrean
English
Arabic
Severe, hearing aid
Family M
Lebanese
Equal amounts
Arabic and English
Equal amounts
Arabic and English
Moderate-severe,
hearing aid
Family N
Lebanese
English
Severe-profound,
cochlear implant
Family S
Eritrean
Arabic
Family V
Croatian
Equal amounts
Croatian and English
English to children,
Arabic between
parents
Arabic, occasional
Tigre
Croatian
Family Z
Italian
English
English
Profound, cochlear
implant
Moderate-severe,
hearing aid
Profound, cochlear
implant
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In hearing families the factors that normally have the
greatest influence on language maintenance include (cf
Kipp et al 1995)
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Parents proficiency/ competence in L2
Strength of involvement in and attachment to ethnic community
Age and length of residency
Availability of support resources (books, classes etc)
In migrant families with deaf children Chamba et al found
language choice was shaped by extent of the child’s
hearing loss, the availability of support services,
professional advice and concerns about education and
integration into Deaf, hearing and/or ethnic communities
(1998, 41)
How do these factors work in the 7 families in this study?
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Three of the seven families use English only with
their deaf child.
In two (N and Z) the parents are bilingual
professionals comfortable communicating in both
languages
They had intended to use their native language
with their children, but once they found out the
child was deaf felt it would be easier to just use
English
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Result was shift to English not just with deaf child
but for whole family
◦ but Mrs S at least thinks this might have
happened anyway “English just feels more
natural”
Links strongly to Chambra et al’s (1998) discussion
about integration into hearing community, but
families also candidates for language shift under
traditional models of LM&S
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Mrs I arrived in Australia as a refugee with her 4 month old son
When her son’s hearing loss was detected she was advised by
doctors and professionals so speak nothing but English with him or
he would end horribly confused – however shehad limited English so
he received minimal language input in the preschool years.
Further complicated once Mrs I’s husband joined her in Australia –
went back to speaking Arabic with husband and further children.
Now have split language pattern where deaf child only knows
English but rest of family speaks Arabic at home. Problematic and
something Mrs I bitterly regrets.
Only case in project where family seems to have accepted
professional advice unquestionably, with quite distressing results
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Families V, S, I and M still moved almost exclusively in coethnic social circles
No coincidence that all bar I decided to keep using the ethnic
language with their deaf child and stressed in the interviews
how important it was that their child kept the language for
religious, cultural and familial reasons – here ‘standard’
reasons for language maintenance have trumped any
concerns about the child’s hearing loss and language
development
Family B also have strong links to Lao community, but Mrs B
only introduced Lao to her daughter once she was sure her
English was developing well
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While families initially might be guided by other factors, the
extent to which they persist with their code choice patterns
will be partly determined by the child’s progress
Families B and S had the most success raising bilingual
children (with no diagnosed language delay in English) – no
coincidence that these children also appeared to have some
of the highest levels of residual hearing (and S had a postlingual hearing loss at 18 months), so had more to work with
when learning languages
At the other end of the spectrum, families M and V both
report deliberately introducing more English into the home
after becoming concern about their child’s progress in
English
Family N now feeling comfortable enough about son’s English
that he started Lebanese classes last year
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A surprising finding for me was that the five of the seven deaf
children had studied their ethnic language at after-hours
ethnic schools
Issue with ethnic school teachers having little training or
support for working with deaf (or other disabled) students –
sometimes worked out OK, but sometimes very ineffective
Shows too how much parents still value their ethnic
languages, not willing to give up in the face of deafness
Runs very contra to advice some receive from case managers
and Teachers of the Deaf and may be a source of conflict
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When deaf children of migrants hit school, few
teachers see their ESL background as relevant
Garcia (1995) notes this means they are at risk of
being diagnosed as language delayed, and may not
be given appropriate support
Can also leave schools blind to areas where the
parents may not be able to assist their deaf child
(e.g. in expanding their English vocabulary)
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Mrs V reported that earlier in the year she had had some
extended discussions with her son’s teacher about his English
development. It was agreed that her son was having
difficulties mastering English spelling, and that he also
needed assistance in developing his understanding and use
of metaphors and what Mrs V termed the “chit-chat” elements
of English (presumably pragmatic competence). While these
are hardly unusual problems for a deaf child to have, Mrs V
felt largely powerless to assist her son in these areas because
they are precisely the points where she feels her own English
competence is lacking.
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In actual fact, she does seem to be engaging with some tasks
with her son designed for them both to practice their English
literacy skills, however one can clearly see that a parent with
limited English proficiency is in a much weaker position to
perform remedial work with a deaf child struggling to learn
English than an Anglo parent used to interacting in English all
the time. In this case, Mrs V reports telling the teacher that
her son’s English development in these areas would need to
stay in the schools’ hands, however it is unknown how well
equipped the particular school is to deal with the challenges
that this situation presents.
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None of the families used a sign language with their
deaf child (children B and V knew some Auslan from
school)
Parents seemed to have the attitude that since their
child had some hearing (B, N, V, and Z had cochlear
implants; I, M and S hearing aids) sign languages
weren’t necessary
Mother Z had also been advised that introducing
Auslan would interfere with attempts to teach her
daughter oral skills
Parents seem to have had very limited opportunities
(and time) to acquire Auslan should they have wanted
to do so
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Clearly a number of families are bringing up deaf children
using migrant languages at home and case managers, Auslan
interpreters and teachers of the deaf need training in working
with linguistically diverse clients
NESB families require greater support to make genuine
choices about the language(s) they use with their deaf
children and other aspects of their child’s education
Need for better cooperation and information sharing between
deafness and migrant welfare agencies to ensure families
gain access to information and support, and that deafness
services are delivered in a culturally-competent manner
All of these will rely on greater funding provisions being
made to allow these issues to be adequately addressed

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