The British Association of Teachers of the Deaf
Promoting Excellence in Deaf Education

Sign bilingual education and cochlear implants

Susan Gregory

1989 was a watershed year in deaf education in the UK for two major events. The first Local Education Authority adopted a sign bilingual policy, and the first deaf child in the UK received a cochlear implant.

Sign bilingual approaches to education had been discussed in deaf education since at least the early 1980s and came to prominence with the foundation of LASER (The Language of Sign as an Educational Resource) in 1983. In 1989 Leeds Service for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children adopted a bilingual policy, closely followed by The Royal School for the Deaf, Derby and Longwill School in Birmingham.

Cochlear implantation of deaf children was first carried out in the USA in 1980, and the first deafened child was implanted by the Nottingham Paediatric Cochlear Implant Programme in 1989, with the first congenitally deaf child being implanted by the same programme in 1991.

Both developments seemed to be motivated by similar concerns; the improvement of the language and communication of deaf children leading to positive consequences for the child's family and social life, their self esteem and the enhancement of their access to education. Thus both seem to have the interests of deaf children at heart, even if some people feel that one or other development was misguided or even detrimental. However, there are some fundamental and important differences between the two developments.

Sign bilingualism and cochlear implantation are rooted in different models of deafness. Cochlear implants are located within a medical paradigm, in which to be deaf is to be disabled and thus the aim is to cure deafness and restore hearing as far as possible. Sign bilingualism is based within a linguistic and cultural minority view of deaf people, where the aim is to recognise and value difference.

Sign bilingualism is based on the idea that, as deaf children can potentially easily acquire sign language and may have difficulty in accessing spoken language, they should be given the opportunity to develop sign language. This gives them a rich language for their personal and social life and for access to the curriculum. Within different educational settings the relative use of the two languages (sign and spoken/written language) may differ, but an essential feature is that the each language is recognised as distinct and used differently. While working towards the same goals as spoken language based approaches, sign bilingualism recognises the need for a different classroom practice, using different means to achieve the same ends. It also recognises the Deaf community, that group of Deaf people who see themselves as a linguistic and cultural minority group rather than a disabled group. A sign bilingual approach encourages the involvement of deaf as well as hearing people, and recognition of the culture of Deaf people (Gregory 1993 and 2005).

The aim of cochlear implantation is to improve a child's ability to hear and thus their ability to develop and use spoken language. Within education, cochlear implantation is thus allied with oral-aural based approaches in which deaf children access the curriculum through spoken language and are expected to follow a similar pattern of development to their hearing counterparts. Spoken language based approaches usually emphasise the similarity between the education of deaf pupils and others, and follow the same curriculum with the same aims. Most deaf pupils will be educated alongside hearing pupils.

While practice may differ, the aims of education for oral-aural and sign bilingual approaches are similar: that deaf children should benefit from access to a full and varied curriculum which maximises their potential for learning. However, in some social aspects the emphasis differs. Sign bilingual approaches emphasise pupil self esteem, the valuing of deafness and sign language and recognition of the unique and distinctive deaf culture (Pickersgill and Gregory 1998). English based approaches view participation and integration into the hearing world as paramount.

A critical question is then whether these two developments are incompatible and whether choice between the two has to be made by parents and by teachers.

Within sign bilingual settings there can be negative feelings about cochlear implant programmes. It has been suggested that cochlear implants are about making deaf children hearing rather than accepting children as they are, and that within programmes good signing skills and thus good linguistic development are not valued. On the other hand, many cochlear implant programmes view sign language approaches with suspicion. They have suggested that sign bilingual programmes are not concerned with development of spoken language and thus will not encourage children to use their hearing and develop their spoken language. More extremely some may hold the view that deaf children who sign do not speak, and thus signing should be discouraged. While these views do not reflect inevitable truths and do not stand up to any proper inspection, they still have currency.

However, another way to consider this issue is to look at the ways in which each development could value the other one. There are a number of reasons why signing environments should welcome cochlear implants. Given the aim of the sign bilingual approach is to develop a child's skills in two languages, a development that enhances language skills must be important. Cochlear implants are clearly such a development, in that they aim to facilitate the development of spoken language and thus general linguistic ability and literacy. For deaf children from hearing families, improved spoken language skills can also give the child better communication with the extended family and local hearing community, which should benefit their well being. Implants also provide improved access to environmental sounds.

Cochlear implant programmes should welcome sign bilingual approaches, firstly because implants do not fully restore hearing and an implanted child is still a deaf child. In order that the child may have an appropriate sense of their own identity and that expectations of the child are realistic, knowledge about and access to sign language for both parents and children can emphasise this aspect of a child's being. Sign language can also provide a deaf child with language and communication prior to implantation and while implant use is developing. It may take a child some time to use an implant effectively and maintaining good communication in this period is important, particularly as there may well be a critical period for language development. Being bilingual is an advantage for any child and, for deaf children with implants, having competence in two languages provides an increased choice about language use. Currently some children who sign continue to sign after their implants, although many cease to use sign language. It is not the choice that the child makes that is important, but their opportunity to make a choice.

It would be naive for a paper such as this to suggest that sign bilingual approaches and cochlear implants programmes can easily come together; clearly there are issues and dilemmas. There is a major issue for cochlear implant teams about when signing should be introduced and its continued use after implantation. Good communication skills, including signing, prior to implantation are valuable and need to be fostered. However, to make good use of the implant, children need a great deal of experience of sound, and particularly spoken language, after implantation and the relative role of sign and spoken language needs to be considered. For sign bilingual settings, one issue is how to provide appropriate experience of spoken as well as sign language to children with implants, which involves providing good listening conditions and opportunities to promote the development of spoken language. There is a particular issue in the period following implantation. For a child who accesses the curriculum through sign language and whose spoken language skills are relatively underdeveloped, what should happen? Should the setting continue the use of sign language and thus access to the curriculum, or should access to the curriculum take second place to facilitation of listening and spoken language skills?

However, I suggest in this article that while there are differences there are similarities in two developments. In deaf education it often seems easier to focus on difference and to polarise positions, when the aims and aspirations that are held in common are more important than the difference. A focus on shared concerns and on the contribution various developments can make to deaf education is likely to improve rather than diminish the educational experience of deaf children.


Gregory, S (1993)
'The language and culture of Deaf people: implications for education' in Beveridge, M C and Reddiford, G (eds) Language Culture and Education.
Proceedings of the Colston Symposium, Bristol Clevedon, Multilingual Matters (pp.102-116)

Gregory S (2005) Deafness in (ed) A Lewis and B Norwich,
Special teaching for special children? Pedagogies for inclusion
Milton Keynes, Open University Press

Pickersgill M and Gregory S (1998)
Sign bilingualism: A model
Wembley, Middx, A LASER publication

March 2006