Following Your Child’s Lead:
The Dance of Language
By Sara Kennedy
Not so long ago, I looked down at a 14 month old toddler in my lap after learning that she could not hear. Those intense blue eyes confounded me – did I know her? Did she know me? Communication as I had known it halted altogether. Sara Madeleine became again, in my fear of the unknown, the little stranger that she had been to me on her first day of life, before we started the dance of learning to know one another. Like most parents, I don’t think I heard another word the audiologists said after “your daughter has a profound hearing loss.”
As a health care provider, what surprised me next was that it was up to us, as parents, to decide how we wanted to communicate with her. There weren’t reams of double blind randomized controlled trials to tell us that a majority of children learned to read and write well or to speak or to become CEO’s with this or that method. It was up to us, a couple who couldn’t yet define otoacoustic emissions or knew anything about the oppression of Deaf people in history… to choose Maddie’s first language.
That choice was both easier and more complicated than we knew at the time. What I wish I had known then is that your child, your little stranger, has all the answers. Your child wants to communicate with you. She is dying to communicate. When you have that Helen Keller moment, whenever it happens, when they know /water/, signed or spoken or both, is the same as that cool, clear stuff streaming and swirling in the bathtub, when they make some attempt at getting across /light/ and Dad hands them the coveted flashlight: that is power, and you can almost feel the synapses bursting forth in the child’s growing brain. Language is born, and the structure of their very brains begins to change. How do you start the fireworks?
I think it is our job not so much to choose the language as to lead them to the smorgasboard of language in all its forms: voice, print, expression, gesture, whispers and yelling, worrying and celebrating. And watch them and see what tools they pick up. What speaks to their needs. We started, personally, on an oralist track, seeing that the wider world wasn’t so sign friendly. It wasn’t long after that we were sitting with our home visit clinician and aghast to see that Maddie was far below her age, far below in all aspects of communication save one: gestures. For us, it just made sense to throw ourselves into sign for that reason, though I had never before moved my hands when I talked. Honestly. She also appeared to be looking deeply at us as we talked -- perhaps looking for tonsils? So we continued to use our voices. She eventually loved wearing the hearing aids (this is a learned skill for those with recalcitrant babies and toddlers). We realized that aids were part of the deal if she seemed interested in speech and hearing, so that became as routine as getting dressed and putting shoes on every few hours. Shoes, a particular fetish, were featured in her first baby-fisted sign.
This method worked well until she started getting impatient with us looking for signs for words we didn’t know. For years, we knew that if Maddie knew a sign, she knew the word and knew what it meant. When a therapist wisely suggested just giving her the word in voice until we had a chance to look it up, her vocabulary expanded greatly. Her verbal language soon outstripped her signed words. When asked rhetorically “what is the sign for that?” she began to say imperiously: “Why don’t you ask the sign dictionary?” (Brat!) I think you can nurture a bias towards one mode or method just up until you meet other families who are succeeding brilliantly with other methods. Or you see children failing despite a family’s best efforts to follow a specific mode. My four children are vastly different, one from another; it only makes sense that deaf/hh children are just as different from each other. One size fits no one precisely.
A World of Words
In following your child’s lead, teach them to expect to understand the world. I see teens who are deaf just “checking out” of the social scene at times, and I wonder if they have a little “learned helplessness” in their perception of the world. The world is, for sure, an irrational, often unfriendly place to us, let alone our kids. If Maddie learns that no question is unwelcome and no explanation too hurried at home, perhaps she’ll more actively take her place in communicating in the big bad world. I tell her right away if I don’t understand her and I try never to accept her partial understanding of me, either. She’s come to be annoyed by the comprehension questions we are often firing at her, but I can take that flash of blue eyes a little longer. I knew we were on the right track when she began collecting her favorite idioms and suspecting when she didn’t understand us that it was yet another English weirdism.
So my daughter’s smorgasboard of language currently features her (incessant) talking to us, we sign and talk to her for best reception, and she uses a full time interpreter to access her fourth grade life in a neighborhood school. In noisy environments, she uses more sign. She opted to try to sleep with her two year old cochlear implant on at the summer camp she insisted on attending. She stops voicing when she has her best friend over for an occasional gigglefest. We read and read and read to her as she hasn’t yet taken up this pastime just for fun yet, but nonetheless she reads above her grade level. The language-buffet will likely change as she matures. What will she drop? What will she keep? I’m not sure. We just brought her to the feast.
Think About It
Your feast is likely to look very different. My advice? Meet deaf and hard of hearing adults and older kids whenever you can to expand your knowledge of what is possible. If you have a passionate provider or more with many success stories, ask him/her point blank why they think Method X, Y or Z is or isn’t a good fit for your child. Ask what it is about your family’s “culture” that might make or break a method in your house. Help your child fall in love with language not because of state assessment scores, but because it is powerful. It is human. It is one of our most compelling, complex needs. Then watch your child and see what she is telling you through her behavior. All behavior is communication. Communication you can follow, like a dance, until your child takes the lead one day.