Is there still hope?

A post also known as CUKH Symposium on Sign Bilingualism Day 1

Ok so this is a very late post on the Symposium I attended back in June. My grand idea was to write about what was discussed during the daw when I got back to my room in the evening but my brain was crammed with so much information that all I had the energy to do was eat and sleep. (But I’m pretty sure I got some sightseeing and shopping inserted in there somewhere…)

I said in the first post about this Symposium that I would explain what sign bilingualism is and when the sessions started I was very confident that I had a definition for it that was universal. During the afternoon of that first day I realized that the symposium I attended had a different definition than the one I have. Bear with me as I explain as clearly as I can what our definition of sign bilingualism is over in the Philippines the definition of bilingualism as I know it, and the definition they had in Hong Kong as I understood it from the first presentations of the symposium.

Bilingualism among Deaf learners, as I know it, refers to Deaf people being able to communicate in Filipino Sign Language (FSL) and in a written language like English or Filipino. Over at Benilde we say that our Deaf program adheres to bilingualism because we attempt to develop the communication skills of our students in FSL and in written English. (We also teach them written Tagalog but I have to admit this is more difficult than teaching English…and that is already tough as it is!)

Here in Hong Kong bilingualism refers to signing in Chinese Sign Language (CSL) and speaking in Cantonese. Being able to write in Cantonese is referred to as Chinese literacy. I have to admit I had a hard time wrapping my mind around this but that’s just because back in the Philippines the signing schools don’t teach students to speak and the oral schools don’t teach students to sign.

The first day of the symposium was a half-day session that focused on the theme of Language Input.

The first two presentations of that Day One were a bit hard for me to follow…

(Note: The speakers are the people at the podium. Those standing conspicuously under the PowerPoint presentations are the sign language interpreters.)

Bencie Woll talks about why sign language is good for your brain...mostly in the context of Deaf children with cochlear implants.
Bencie Woll talks about why sign language is good for your brain…mostly in the context of Deaf children with cochlear implants.
Does early sign language input make a difference in deaf children with Auditory Brainstem Implants? This is the question that Chris Yiu answers in his presentation.
Does early sign language input make a difference in deaf children with Auditory Brainstem Implants? This is the question that Chris Yiu answers in his presentation.

It was the last two presentations that got my attention and, in a way, left me disheartened.

The third presentation was by Rachel Mayberry who talked about how infant language prepares the child’s brain to read. The lecture was a bit technical with images of the brain being presented in various scenarios like when a Deaf person who learned sign language early was given a question to answer versus a Deaf person who learned to sign late, at about 7 or 8 years old, answering the same question. (Let me just say how grateful I was to be seated beside Rochelle who is a science teacher. I believe I understood most of the presentation because of the explanations she would whisper to me when I probably looked perplexed.) Basically what I got from this presentation is that Deaf people who learn to sign at a later age have a harder time with reading comprehension in adolescence and even later in life. And that is the same for their comprehension of signing as well.

Rachel Mayberry presenting how infant language prepares the child's brain to read.
Rachel Mayberry presenting how infant language prepares the child’s brain to read.

I teach at a tertiary-level institution where the majority of our Deaf students learned to sign late…later than the age of 7 and 8. So the whole time I was listening to this presentation I was thinking, “So what the heck are we doing? If our students are at such a disadvantage why in heaven’s name are we working so hard when whatever we do won’t bring them to the level acceptable in society the workplace?”

The fourth, and last presentation for the day was by Qun Li, Gladys Tang, Chris K-M Yiu, and Scholastica Lam and they discussed the literacy development of their students in the co-enrollment program (SLCO). What I got from that talk is that the receptive vocabulary ability of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing children are similar to that of hearing children but their expressive vocabulary ability is different. That means that I can expect them to understand words from what we have them read in the same level as hearing children but they will not be able to express themselves using words of the same level. Which is a bit hard for me to believe because the students that I teach have great difficulty in reading at the same level as their hearing peers. Or is the SLCO Program able to develop receptive vocabulary ability because the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing students have hearing classmates? If that’s the case then I think this way of teaching is worth looking into.

So is there still hope for our Deaf learners to read and write and learn at the level of their hearing peers? How much work will it take for them and for us who teach? What are we doing wrong? And what should we be doing to teach them right? So many questions that left me a bit disappointed, and a bit frustrated, but I’d like to thank that I also felt hope, and inspiration, that we can still make a difference in Deaf Education, albeit we need to work much, much harder than the norm.

And that was it for our first day. I hope I can still post about the sessions after because it was a jam packed Day 2 and insightful Day 3. That’s what happens when you put writing off for months and months. 🙁

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