My first response before I even knew the degree of SJ’s hearing loss was to learn American Sign Language and teach it to her. I never thought it would be be easy, but my original expectations might have been a little unrealistic.
I was already familiar with baby sign language. I figured that if babies can learn to sign before they can talk then this sign language thing should be a breeze, especially for SJ because she’s brilliant! Come to find out it’s not that simple and it has to do with what I wrote about last week in “the Science of Language”. You acquire your first language by being immersed in it and it all happens easily and naturally. It’s called first language acquisition.
Babies hear MILLIONS of words before they ever say their first! They are observing, listening and mentally taking it all in for the first year or so. It’s a critical time developmentally. A deaf baby born in a deaf family is going through the same process except with a manual language. These children are typically raised in deaf culture so they see sign language happening all around them through their parents, teachers, and communities. One of SJ’s therapist says a child needs to see a sign around 100 times before it sticks. I thought I would simply show SJ some signs and teach her how to talk, but I am up against her natural urge of language acquisition which is to imitate, and for the past 2 and a half years she hasn’t seen any proof that the world around her communicates through sign language. Even now, I try to sign quite a bit, but we are still no where near the amount of oral words she would be hearing if she could. I’m not sure if I am making sense, but this whole first language acquisition thing was a recent epiphany for me. I just never thought about it that way.
Realizing your child is at square one trapped in world without language is a tough pill to swallow. It’s different than realizing that they can’t hear, it’s like Okay. Wow, we have a lot of lost time to make up. I explain it to people using Z as an example. Z started watching signing time and learning ASL along with us just a few months ago. As a 4 year old he quickly picked up around 100 words with minimal effort. I can ask Z What is the sign for share? and he’ll show me. The difference between him and SJ (besides that Z is 2 1/2 years older) is that Z already has a language. He knows what share means and has been learning about this word for years, now he is just attaching a sign to it. Just because SJ is deaf it doesn’t mean she is naturally more inclined to pick up sign language, it’s going to be harder for her because of the lack of immersion that I mentioned earlier. Anyway, that was my light bulb moment last month, but taking all this into consideration she is doing awesome. Sometimes I take for granted how much she does communicate with us through ASL. I need to document more of those precious first words that we are seeing from her.
On another note, we got the test results back yesterday and praise the Lord SJ’s brain and ear anatomy looks great. This means the hearing loss is not caused by any shocking unforeseen damage or malformations. That is really good news and now we can move forward with getting a cochlear implant, which is another big ol’ topic that I need to write about sometime. Just another curve on this windy hilly journey that we are on. There are ups and downs, pit stops, and speed bumps, but I am trying to take in all the beautiful scenery along the way and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
We hear it all the time, “children are resilient”. Teach her the language of (God’s) love and she will become all she was meant to be.
Wow, I never knew how difficult it could be. I had never heard of first language acquisition, but you explained it in a way that is understandable. With such a long way to go still, I'll continue to pray for y'all.