In the United States, one in a thousand children is born profoundly deaf. Despite their inability to hear at birth, communication and language acquisition are fundamental to their general cognitive development and their engagement with their surroundings. While most deaf children in the developed world receive hearing aids and/or cochlear implants, and use spoken language as their primary mode of communication, there are Deaf communities around the world that use signed languages. In 1957, Noam Chomsky, the pioneer of the nativist theory of language acquisition, claimed that all humans are born with an innate capacity for language, in other words, a language acquisition device. The fact that deaf children are able to communicate supports his view for an innate capability to communicate.
Some deaf children lag in language development and subsequently struggle in school, but this may not be solely attributable to deafness. Deaf children born to deaf parents acquire sign language just as quickly and with as much effort as hearing children acquire spoken language. Although they may communicate less frequently than their hearing counterparts, deaf mothers’ language is made more accessible and thereby more salient to their children.
More than 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents. The majority of these children receive hearing aids and/or cochlear implants, and are taught to listen and to use spoken language using these devices.
Language acquisition strategies for signing deaf children are different than those appropriate for hearing children. For parents with deaf children who do not use amplification (hearing aids or cochlear implants), joint attention (an important component to language development) can be problematic. Hearing children can watch their environment and listen to an adult comment on it. However, children who do not hear have to switch their visual attention back and forth between stimuli. Since observation and language occur sequentially rather than simultaneously for deaf children, the association is less obvious, and the necessary cognitive processing to make these connections are more difficult. To lessen these demands, a parent can use certain strategies to make language more accessible to their deaf children. Strategies for nonverbal communication include using facial expressions and body language to show emotion and reinforce the child's attention to their caregiver. To attract and direct a deaf child's attention, caregivers can break his line of gaze using hand and body movements, touch, and pointing to allow language input. In order to make language salient, parents should use short, simple sentences so that the child's attention doesn’t have to be divided for too long. Finally, to reduce the need for divided attention, a caregiver can position themselves and objects within the child's visual field so that language and the object can be seen at the same time.
For deaf children who use listening and spoken language as their primary mode of communication, their families will often participate in Auditory-verbal therapy, a means of enhancing the innate language and listening skills of deaf children. Most children who receive cochlear implants before the age of 18 months follow language-learning trajectories of their peers who have typical hearing.
ASL is a human language with equal linguistic complexity and expressiveness than that of any other spoken language. It employs signs made by moving one's hands along with one's facial expressions and body language. Most medical professionals emphasize that deaf children only have two options: the oral route (access to spoken language only) and the manual route (sign language). They ignore that there is yet another way to communicate, that is, using sign language while simultaneously promoting English speech development. Some studies indicate that if a deaf child learns sign language, he or she will be less likely to learn spoken languages because they will lose motivation. However, Humphries insists that there is no evidence for this. Learning ASL prevents linguistic deprivation along with the social ramifications such as feelings of exclusion from the hearing community. Learning ASL at an early stage of development significantly improves a deaf child's communication skills.
MCE is a collection of sign systems, which represents the English syntactic structure in a manual way. Often, deaf people sign MCE and speak simultaneously. In this way, deaf children can learn the structure of the English language not only through the sound and lip-reading patterns of spoken English, but also through manual patterns of signed English. Although MCE is rather complicated and rigorous by nature of representing the entire English grammar manually, it helps strengthen communication between English speakers and deaf people. It is also much easier for hearing people to learn MCE rather than ASL since it is mapped on the same grammatical structure. Some research has shown that when people sign and talk at the same time, one mode or both end up not portraying the complete message. Sometimes the message is mostly spoken with sign support, or mostly signed with spoken support.
According to Goldin-Meadow, reading requires two essential abilities: familiarity with a language and understanding the mapping between that language and the written word. At birth, deaf children are deficient in both. However, reading is possible if deaf children learn ASL, a linguistic code that although, not based on sounds, is still nonetheless a language. Once they have acquired ASL, deaf children learn how to map between sign language and print so that they can learn English. Several techniques are used to help bridge the gap between ASL and spoken language or the "translation process" such as sandwiching and chaining. Sandwiching consists of alternating between saying the word and signing it. Chaining consists of finger spelling a word, pointing to the spoken language version of the word and using pictorial support. Although chaining is not widely used, it creates an understanding between the visual spelling of a word and the sign language spelling of the word. This helps the child become bilingual in both ASL and spoken language. More importantly, the deaf child's social context is crucial for nurturing his or her capacity to read. Research shows that deaf children born to deaf parents are usually better readers than deaf children born to hearing parents. This is due to the fact that deaf parents provide a strong social and emotional network and may immediately have access to the necessary resources for their child. Deaf parents already anticipate the needs of their child, having been through the same experience, as opposed to a hearing parent. Although MCE is helpful, ASL is the key component for deaf children's reading. Deaf children who made progress in ASL and MCE also made progress in reading English, but children who only made some progress in MCE didn’t make progress in reading English. More evidence for the necessity of acquiring ASL is reflected in studies comparing reading scores and ratings of sign language performance. According to Meadow, there is a positive relationship between speech reading scores and ratings for speech, expressive finger spelling and sign usage. Contrary to popular belief, this strongly suggests that deaf children with ASL in fact do acquire strong reading skills. However, children who do not have language such as ASL to map the printed code can never read. Hence, in order for a deaf child to learn to read, he or she must know ASL beforehand. The sooner the child learns ASL the better he or she will be at developing effective communicative skills. Mastery of written language is especially important today as we are moving into the Information Age. In order to succeed, one must possess strong reading and writing skills.
A cochlear implant is placed surgically inside the cochlea, which is the part of the inner ear that converts sound to neural signals. The implant receives signals from an external device worn behind the ear and stimulates electrodes in the cochlea. These electrodes stimulate the auditory nerve directly, circumventing the hair cells that are involved in the beginning stages of auditory neural processing. Although some researchers claim that cochlear implants only helps hearing for adults or children who become deaf after having acquired language, and not as much children born deaf, recent research has shown that cochlear implants can actually promote the development of speech perception and production in prelingually deaf children. Children born deaf who received cochlear implants showed increased gains in expressive language and speech perception (determined by a variety of phoneme recognition tests) than deaf children who had not received the implant. Strong evidence indicates that the earlier the cochlear implantation is done, the less delays there are in language development for pre-linguistically deaf children. If implanted early enough deaf children can attain clear, normal spoken language.
Cochlear implants have been the subject of a heated debate between those that believe deaf children should receive the implants and those that do not. Members of "Deaf World" believe this is an important ethical problem. They strongly advocate that sign language is their first or native language just as any other spoken language is for a hearing person. They do not see deafness as a deficiency in any way, but rather a normal human trait amongst a variety of different ones. Members are particularly concerned with giving deaf children the ability to hear and acquire language; they are worried that it will lead to the genocide of Deaf culture. One issue on the ethical perspective of implantation is the numerous amount of possible side effects that may present themselves after surgery. There are various severe side effects that may result from the surgery, (the body may physically reject the implant; for some reason, there may not be any benefit, or very little gained; the internal component may need to be replaced causing the need for another surgery), even in some cases lessening listening capabilities, losing residual hearing or hearing sounds differently. While the surgery presents one positive solution, these side effects are not often taken into account but are significant and need to be afforded more attention.
Despite criticism and controversy regarding cochlear implants, evidence demonstrates that the simultaneous implementation of implants and ASL ultimately increase a deaf child's linguistic and communicative capabilities. As a result, deaf children have stronger chances of integrating with both deaf and hearing communities; thereby allowing them to engage socially. For the most effective language acquisition, deaf children must be immersed in a nurturing environment that includes educational and parental support.