I once worked with a 13-year old boy from an underdeveloped country during a teaching internship. He was deaf and he had no language — no English, Spanish, American Sign Language, nor a sign language native to the region he grew up in. We communicated for weeks through drawing.
He moved to another American city soon after my internship finished and I lost track of him. I heard that his adoptive American mother was investigating whether cochlear implant surgery would help him.
Adrian Florido’s article, In a New Land, Hoping to Hear, reminded me a lot of my young student. This isn’t only because Har Sin, the 24-year-old deaf refugee from Myanmar (and the subject of Florido’s article) also arrived in America with no language of any kind.
Rather, like my former student’s adoptive mother, Har Sin appeared to harbor belief that hearing ability — as opposed to communication access — would be the answer to his problems and would free him from his isolation. So strong was this belief that upon learning that he did not do well on his hearing test, Har Sin told his sister he wanted to die.
This is where the similarity ends. The second part of Florido’s story, Breaking Free of a Life Without Language, focuses on Har Sin’s exposure to American Sign Language and the worlds this language opened up for him.
Florido is to be commended not only for the enormous amount of work that went into these articles (after all, simply attempting to get consent, let alone write from the perspective, of a person with no language, was a Herculean task), but also for the fact that he did not go for a fake, rosy ending. Har Sin is not going to have an easy life. He faces enormous challenges. He perhaps has one thing he didn’t have before — hope — but becoming even somewhat fluent in ASL and English will take years, if not decades.
Cochlear implantation is a growing trend, occurring at ever-younger ages. There’s a reason for this: children acquire language more easily than adults. I never verified my student’s adoptive mother was investigating cochlear implants, but I have no reason to doubt it. Many parents of deaf children (over 90% of them hearing themselves) often seem to choose approaches to deafness that involve getting their children to hear again.
Har Sin initially seemed to believe that hearing again would end his life of isolation. While I don’t know whether or not he entirely abandoned this apparent belief, I do know that by the end of Florido’s series, he was diligently working at learning as much sign language as he could, and was using it to increase his access to English.
My student’s mother, though her son made a great deal of progress toward acquiring language through art, signs, and eventually printed English text, nonetheless apparently did not abandon hope that her adopted son would hear again.
Bitter disagreement often divides the deaf community on this point: What should be the focus when it comes to helping a deaf person acquire language: communication access or hearing ability?
Because the hope to hear again remains persistent in some deaf people and in many parents of deaf children, let’s imagine that technological or biological approaches currently beyond our grasp — but possibly only just — are now available to us. Let’s imagine that one could undergo stem cell therapy or flip a switch on a next generation cochlear implant, and after 24 years of deafness (Har Sin’s case) or 13 years of deafness (my former student’s case), or even a lifetime of deafness, one could hear again with perfect clarity.
What would be likely to happen? Not just to that person, but to the community of support surrounding him?
In some cases, perfect hearing would not bring about immediate and perfect communication access. Language acquisition does not work that way. If you are hearing, purchase a CD of a foreign language you are not familiar with. Turn it on and listen. Can you hear it? Yes. Can you understand it? No. You have never been exposed to that language before.
A formerly deaf person’s (especially one who is older and deaf since birth) newly-acquired ability to hear a spoken language will have some impact on his ability to acquire it, though how much and how soon is open to speculation.
For this reason, the current ongoing debate regarding how early children should be implanted will most likely carry over into other types of approaches, including stem cell therapies and genetic engineering. “The earlier the better” will probably remain the position of those in favor of medical approaches over linguistic ones, if only to avoid what was just described: a scenario in which a deaf person is rendered hearing too late for the ability to do much good.
An even more complicated issue is that not everyone will have access to these therapies, or timely access to them, because they live on the wrong part of the planet or because they are unaffordable.
Thus, even in a best-case scenario where miracle therapies are created in which full hearing ability can be restored, there will be several different groups of formerly deaf people:
- Prelingually deafened people who received treatment early enough and responded well to one type of treatment or some combination of treatments. Prelingual deafness occurs between birth and the age of two — critical years for acquiring language. This group will most likely have acquired aural languages with the greatest ease.
- Those who lost their hearing later in life, after the critical stage for learning language had passed (also called postlingual deafness) and responded well to the treatment. This group, with memory of aural language, may also make great strides in developing their aural language comprehension skills.
- And finally those who, like my student and Har Sin, had no language base to work from for too long. For this group, language acquisition will be an enormous struggle, especially if they are denied access to visual, signed languages.
In their own countries, as we have seen in Har Sin’s case, the educational system may not be capable of making visual languages available. There may even be active oppression of these languages. Even if all the cures for all forms of deafness are administered to all deaf people in the United States, we will still have within our borders a population of formerly deaf people struggling to acquire English.
Outside of our borders, there will still be formerly deaf and currently deaf people struggling to acquire any language, with those who received these treatments latest in life struggling the most.
Something else to think about: A number of state residential institutions and sign-language programs for the deaf have shrunk or have closed.
One explanation for this is that the increasing trends of cochlear implantation and mainstreaming practices are rendering these institutions and programs obsolete, and perhaps ASL along with them.
If that’s true, imagine what this could mean for people such as Har Sin 20 years from now, when improved therapies for treating deafness are available and much more widespread.
If more deaf people become hearing, there may be a corresponding decrease in the use of American Sign Language. There may also be a decrease in ASL-based adult education services and a decrease in the overall signing community. It is entirely possible that people such as Har Sin could regain their hearing, fail to master a spoken language, and still be just as isolated as ever.
This need not be the case. With recognition that it is a lack of language exposure — and not deafness — that isolates people behind nearly insurmountable language barriers, there also comes a recognition that communication access — and not hearing ability — is of paramount importance. In the midst of such recognition, ASL and other visual signed languages can continue to open doorways, as Florido’s series clearly illustrates.
Christopher Jon Heuer is an editor for Deafecho.com, an Associate Professor of English at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., and a freelance writer. He lives in Alexandria, Va., with his wife, Amy, and son, Jack.