Late acquisition of South African Sign Language of deaf children from hearing parents: a sociolinguistic perspective
Le Roux, Annemarie
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Language development in deaf children is often hampered by the fact that 90 percent of these children are born into hearing families, and due to the fact that most hearing parents do not know Sign Language (SL) (Lane, Bejan, & Hoffmeister, 1996). The deaf child might be the family’s first contact with deaf people. Communication with the deaf child is only one aspect that parents need to consider, as this child will not have the same typically accessible linguistic inputs as their hearing peers. Parents will most often only use spoken language to communicate with the child. Therefore, there is no or very little language exposure (Lindfors, 1991). Many deaf children only start to learn a language, most likely a signed language or a written language, when they start attending school between the ages of three and seven. This could occur even later, depending on when the hearing loss is discovered. As a result, many deaf children have a backlog in cognitive and language development and often finds it hard to acquire a SL e.g. South African Sign Language (SASL) as well as the written form of a spoken language (e.g. English). Therefore, research has been done to determine the impact of late exposure of SL to deaf children’s language learning and development with regard to signed and written language. The assumption (hypothesis) made in this study is that it is not too late for a deaf child from hearing parents to develop basic cognitive and language skills that are on the same level than his or her hearing peers, providing that the child is exposed to language at an early age. The researcher observed and tested seven deaf children, between the ages of four and seven, at a special school for the Deaf in a rural area of South Africa. A mixed method research was used to obtain the data. Deaf learners in Grade R were observed in a classroom setting, which provided a sociolinguistic perspective to the study. Specialised tests were conducted to determine their use and understanding of SASL. The level of understanding of SASL was assessed through their interaction with signed stories. Learners were exposed to understanding language (SASL) through the identification of specific signs, for example, the researcher signed DOG and the child had to identify the card with the picture of the dog, on it. The data was gathered from March to September 2016, a period of seven months, where learners participated in seven activities. In the beginning of the study, the learners were very unsure when communicating as they only had some “home signs” which the family had “developed” in order to communicate at home. As the year progressed and they learned how to communicate using correct SASL signs and structure, they become more confident in everyday communication. The study concluded that the impact of late exposure to SL on deaf learners’ language learning and development, proved to be a serious problem. This is due to a lack of exposure to a language that they are able to understand. The level of language development cannot be compared favourably with the level of language development of children who had exposure to early language development. If early language intervention takes place, it would have had a positive influence on their understanding and use of SL when they entered school. Within this dissertation, the researcher will share more detailed findings regarding late language acquisition of young deaf children growing up in hearing families. The hypothesis will be discussed and whether the validity thereof can be accepted or rejected.
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