Hearing children with deaf parents: The impacts on language development

September 14, 2015 by Brigitte Sauvageau
Parent sourd, enfant entendant
Did you know that 90% of children born to deaf parents can hear? How do these families communicate at home?

Literature indicates that a three-year-old child who cannot communicate better than an 18-month-old toddler will never be able to fully make up for his speech and language delay. This raises concerns about how having deaf parents impacts a child’s language development.

Deaf parents and their hearing children have two communication options: sign communication and oral communication.

Sign communication

Most deaf parents will choose to use sign language to communicate with their children. In this case, sign language is considered the children’s mother tongue. They will learn oral communication through other means. When children are raised with both sign and oral communication, they are considered bilingual learners. Their communication skills will develop just like those of any small child learning two spoken languages at the same time (e.g., French and English). Despite the known benefits of bilingual learning, there are high risks of such children developing bad habits, leading to mistakes such as the following:

  • Asks incorrect or incomplete questions
  • Forgets articles (a, the)
  • Confuses definite pronouns (s/he)
  • Misuses past verb tenses
  • Repeates the same word in a sentence

Such mistakes are part of the learning process and will disappear with time.

Oral communication

Some parents will choose to communicate orally with their children in the hope that this will help with their language development. Unfortunately, various studies show that deaf parents are not the best teachers, because they usually have weak articulation and vocabulary, which affects the clarity of the message they are trying to deliver.

  • This can have the following consequences on their hearing children’s development:
  • Poor articulation, similar to that of their deaf parents
  • Language deficiency (observed in one of every two such children)
  • Limited interaction with their deaf parents (because they don’t know sign language, they struggle to communicate with them)

Exposure to oral language

It has been proven that children of deaf parents can develop language just as well as children of hearing parents, provided they spend a minimal amount of time with people who speak the language fluently, such as family members or a child care worker or sport coach. Weekly exposure of five to ten hours seems enough for children to acquire the knowledge and skills required to correctly express themselves orally.

Deaf parents are advised to communicate with their children in the mode they are most comfortable with—the one in which they can clearly express ideas with every nuance of thought—for the good reason that clear communication will foster natural language acquisition.

JOHNSON J. M., R. V. Watkins and M. L. Rice (1992). “Bimodal bilingual language development in a hearing child of deaf parents,” Applied psycholinguistics, 13(01), pp. 31–52.
MURPHY, J. and N. Slorach. (1983). “The Language Development of Pre‐Preschool Hearing Children of Deaf Parents,” International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 18(2), pp. 118–127.
SINGLETON, J. L. and M. D. Tittle (2000). “Deaf parents and their hearing children,” Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 5(3), pp. 221–236

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