Most babies are born into the culture and community of their families. If the family is Latino or Tatar or Han Chinese, so is the baby. The baby learns the family’s language — “the mother tongue.” Culture and language are passed down from parents to child.
Except when the child is born deaf. I am the mother of two daughters, both diagnosed deaf within their first weeks of life. My husband and I, both hearing, faced complicated decisions from the very start. Our babies needed exposure to language immediately (unlike hearing babies, they heard nothing in the womb), and we needed to make choices.
Most parents simply whisper and coo to their children in their native tongues. We had to decide — and quickly — what our daughters’ native tongue would be. Should we try to get our daughters access to spoken language through hearing technology, or to immerse them (and ourselves) in American Sign Language, or to try to do both?
We chose spoken language, primarily. We believed it would give our girls the greatest opportunities over the course of their lifetimes — and, maybe even more powerfully, we felt it would be best for us as a family. We were new parents, bonding with our babies, and we, like parents everywhere, wanted to do that in our own mother tongue.
Hearing technologies — in the form of digital hearing aids and cochlear implants — have come so far as to make this a viable option even for our younger daughter, who was born profoundly deaf. Many people we meet — hearing and deaf — understand the decisions we made to enable our children to hear and to speak our language. Many — but not all.
I’ve met people who believe that despite the fact that we gave birth to them, our children are deaf and should belong to the signing Deaf community (in the distinct culture and community of those with fluency in sign language, “Deaf” is always capitalized) — and neither spoken language nor the culture of hearing serves them. One woman expressed “deep sorrow” for us because (in her view) we failed to accept our children for who they are. We sought to change them into hearing people, wrongly imposing our world on them. (Most parents, it should be said, impose their world on their children without compunction.)
More than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents. Given the major advances in hearing technology in recent years, many of those children can gain very good access to the particular spoken language of their parents. They and their parents, through everyday communication, can connect with one another and share their family’s history, heritage and culture — just as other families do around the globe.
But this technological opportunity is relatively new, and a long and troubled history of deafness still reverberates with pain and anger. The older deaf remember a time when parents insisted on an oral approach for their deaf children without the benefit of today’s technologies, and many of those children suffered as a result. Of the parents who sent their children to signing schools, the majority never themselves learned more than preschool-level sign language, so that “home” was, for many of these children, isolating and alien.
With little connection to their hearing, speaking families back then, many deaf children found acceptance and camaraderie in communities with deaf people who signed. Today, a blanket insistence on Deaf language and culture for deaf children who can acquire the language of their families is outdated. Family bonds, forged through rich communication and the intimacy this communication brings, can be far more formative to identity than the fact of a child’s deafness.
Some will counter that the hearing families of deaf children should work harder to learn sign language. Perhaps they should, if only to share experiences with the deaf who do not or cannot use hearing technology. But the demands of fluency are out of reach for many parents (not to mention grandparents, siblings and family friends), and as a second language, it may prove inadequate for intimacy and community. Try to communicate with your newborn in Greek while raising your other kids and keeping your job, and the challenge will become clear.
Both of our daughters were fitted with hearing aids within weeks of birth, and our younger daughter eventually got two cochlear implants. We also learned some sign language, which we use when their technology is off. Both have learned to speak beautifully. They happily attend mainstream schools and feel a strong sense of membership in our family and our community. Our daughters hear so well that not only can we talk to them, we can whisper, and even coo — and all of this in our own mother tongue.