A Round Table on Bilingual Education


By Bobby Siebert

Early Intervention Institute in St. Petersburg

In a cozy building a few blocks from Nevsky Prospekt in snowy St. Petersburg, CSD and its Russian partner Ya Tebya Slyshu hosted a roundtable discussion on the topic of bilingual education for Deaf children. Gathered around the table were various professionals, including a speech therapist, a teacher specializing in special education, and a specialist working with people with disabilities. Several people at the table were parents of Deaf children themselves, all with deep, steadfast opinions on how to raise and educate a Deaf child.

At the heart of our discussion was the hotly contested debate between the oral approach and education in sign language. We’ve seen this debate in the United States; it was fascinating and heart-wrenching to see the same arguments mirrored in spoken Russian, by parents and professionals grappling with the same issues and struggles halfway around the world. Cochlear implantation is the norm in Russia; the oral method is the dominant approach in Deaf education and acquiring fluent speaking skills is the overarching goal for Deaf children. “So much time and money is invested in the cochlear implantation process,” one parent said. “Learning sign language is counterproductive to the child learning to speak.”

It is easy to think that this educational pathway for Deaf children is the only one, and it’s why I was grateful to be here sharing my experience. Views are meant to be challenged and invigorated by new data and knowledge, it’s why cultural and knowledge exchanges like this are so important. As a Deaf man born to Deaf parents who was taught American Sign Language from birth, I am evidence that there can be more than one successful method of raising and educating a Deaf child.

Back in September, during Ya Tebya Slyshu’s visit to Austin, we learned a great deal from Dr. Melissa Herzig and Melissa Malzkuhn, esteemed professionals in Deaf education from the Visual Language and Visual Learning Center in Washington, D.C. We learned that the brain processes spoken and signed languages the same way—(renowned neuroscientist Dr. Laura Ann Pettito: “The brain doesn’t discriminate, people do.” The brain learns language by recognizing lingusitic patterns, whether visual or auditory. By age five, a child’s brain is 85-90% developed. That brief span of five years is critical for a child to acquire the foundations of language. Yesterday, we heard the familiar refrain “we must try spoken language first, and if it doesn’t succeed, the Deaf child can always learn to sign later”. Through deep learning research, we now recognize this way of thinking poses a risk— by the time it’s evident the oral method has failed a Deaf child, it’s already too late. The child, now entering the first year of school, having grown up without language or communication will be forced to play catch up, frantically stuffing language input into a rapidly closing window.

I attended a conference on bilingual education legislation recently, and heard a wonderful story from a hearing father of a Deaf daughter. When he and his wife found out their daughter was Deaf, they were dazed. Professionals and specialists piled on information and options on how to raise and educate their daughter. The sheer amount of information was overwhelming. One day the man and his wife were at a restaurant. The waiter came up and asked ‘Do you want soup or salad?’ The man sat and thought about it, and then said ‘yes.’ The waiter was confused. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Do you want soup or salad?’ The man said ‘yes’ again.

And then it hit him—he and his wife didn’t have to pick just one option for their daughter. They would give their daughter everything and ensure she had all the resources and support to succeed.
When emerging research indicates that learning sign language does not interfere with—and potentially helps—learning speech, why would we not want to give every Deaf child both sign language and speech education? We should say ‘yes’ or ‘da’ to both!

At the roundtable, we shared our views that sign language is a viable education option and can coexist with speech education. Advances in technology have only supported this claim. We brought out iPads and showed them ‘The Giant Turnip,’ our visual storybook presented in Russian Sign Language (RSL) and written & spoken Russian. Their faces lit up as they saw a familiar traditional Russian fairy tale told in an all-new way, bridging both languages via signed videos and accompanying text. They swiped pages, played the videos of Vera signing in RSL, and clicked on words to see them signed and fingerspelled.

It was a beautiful feeling to share this innovative resource, the product of months of work and collaboration between CSD, Ya Tebya Slyshu, and Melissa Malzkuhn and Dr. Melissa Herzig, with our Russian friends.

And an even better feeling emerged, to have participated in this exchange of knowledge and culture, to broaden views on both sides, and to share in our mutual passion of creating better futures for Deaf children in the U.S., Russia, and everywhere in the world. It was a brief three-hour discussion, but the impact may be felt for a long time afterwards.

Perhaps the next time we find ourselves in a restaurant, we’ll decide to order both the soup and salad, and give our Deaf children everything.

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