The Role of Early ASL Learning and Linguistic Competence of Deaf Individuals

By Jean F. Andrews

Map of the USA in ASL

Map of the USA in ASL (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

American Sign Language (ASL) is seldom learned early by parents of deaf children when the diagnoses of hearing loss occurs. As a result, few deaf children have strong ASL role models in the home. This has important educational implications. But it also has criticaL repercussions when the deaf child grows into a deaf adult and gets caught in the criminal justice system.
In almost all (with the exception of one), cases where I interviewed deaf suspects or inmates, I have found that they had learned ASL after the age of five. Some even learned it later in junior high or high school. Most all had English reading levels of 4th grade or below.
ASL plays a critical role in a deaf individual’s overall linguistic competence in both ASL and in English. When they learn ASL late, this often delays their ability to learn English. Research has shown strong links between later ASL proficiency and English Literacy.

Lack of ASL proficiency also affects their abilities to effectively work with a sign language interpreter in a police, legal or correctional setting.
Part of the problem is that we have few strong ASL/English bilingual Early Childhood Programs so deaf children are delayed in access to ASL. Another part of the problem is that hearing parents are too busy to learn ASL. They work long hours in jobs where they cannot fit in a sign language class. As a result, their deaf child becomes their sign language teacher and this further delays the deaf child’s acquisition of concepts and language structures because they do not have strong ASL linguistic role models.
One solution to helping parents learn ASL is through online ASL classes. With today’s technology, the video quality is quite good and recent research by Dr. Curt Radford, Professor of Deaf Education at Utah State University has shown that online ASL learning is possible. His recent dissertation completed at Lamar University found that university students in the ASL online class did just as well as ASL students in face to face class.

One creative outcome of Dr. Radford’s research is that he has recently developed an online ASL program for parents. It is reasonably priced and available 24/7 for today’s working parent.
It may seem like a long stretch to connect early ASL acquisition and signing abilities of deaf adults in the criminal justice system who have difficulty understanding sign language interpreters. But the relationship is there. When audiologists, physicians, and educators deny the deaf children and his parents with information on the benefits of ASL as a language, they are not seeing the big picture. Deaf children need English and ASL as early as possible to achieve linguistic competence in both languages. And Dr. Radford’s parent ASL online course as well as other available online resources that achieve this same goal are good places to start.

Jean F. Andrews is a Reading Specialist and Professor of Deaf Studies/Deaf Education at Lamar University.


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