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Where Deaf studies meets language maintenance: Exploring intercultural communication issues for deaf people from migrant backgrounds. Louisa Willoughby Monash University and the Victorian Deaf Society. Language issues for deaf migrants.

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Where Deaf studies meets language maintenance: Exploring intercultural communication issues for deaf people from migrant backgrounds

Louisa Willoughby

Monash University and the Victorian Deaf Society

language issues for deaf migrants
Language issues for deaf migrants
  • Deaf people from migrant backgrounds may use a variety of communication strategies, including:
    • Foreign sign language use – very rare
    • Home signs
    • Oral skills in native spoken language and/or English
    • Formal Auslan (Australian Sign Language) – usually learned as a second language after arrival in Australia
    • Combination of all of the above
  • Auslan and English widely taught through the school system, but only limited opportunities for non-English speaking parents or adult deaf migrants to learn Auslan; and no speech pathology for languages other than English
  • Minimal supports for deaf people to access adult English classes
the interview sample
The interview sample
  • Seven families interviewed
  • Most families recruited through a highly multi-ethnic primary school deaf facility where the teacher in charge was enthusiastic about the project and promoted it heavily to her parents
  • Other families found through personal networks
  • Variety of backgrounds and migration histories
    • Families speak Arabic, Italian, Lao, Croatian and Tigre
    • Children from families B and V born overseas, came to Australia as preschoolers in order to access cochlear implants; others all Australian-born
factors shaping code choice
Factors shaping code choice
  • In hearing families the factors that normally have the greatest influence on language maintenance include (cfKipp et al 1995)
    • Parents proficiency/ competence in L2
    • Strength of involvement in and attachment to ethnic community
    • Age and length of residency
    • Availability of support resources (books, classes etc)
  • In migrant families with deaf children Chamba et al found language choice was shaped by extent of the child’s hearing loss, the availability of support services, professional advice and concerns about education and integration into Deaf, hearing and/or ethnic communities (1998, 41)
  • How do these factors work in the 7 families in this study?
who chose english only
Who chose English only?
  • Three of the seven families use English only with their deaf child.
  • In two (N and Z) the parents are bilingual professionals comfortable communicating in both languages
  • They had intended to use their native language with their children, but once they found out the child was deaf felt it would be easier to just use English
and why
...and why?
  • Result was shift to English not just with deaf child but for whole family
    • but Mrs S at least thinks this might have happened anyway “English just feels more natural”
  • Links strongly to Chambra et al’s (1998) discussion about integration into hearing community, but families also candidates for language shift under traditional models of LM&S
a problem case
A problem case
  • Mrs I arrived in Australia as a refugee with her 4 month old son
  • When her son’s hearing loss was detected she was advised by doctors and professionals so speak nothing but English with him or he would end horribly confused – however shehad limited English so he received minimal language input in the preschool years.
  • Further complicated once Mrs I’s husband joined her in Australia – went back to speaking Arabic with husband and further children.
  • Now have split language pattern where deaf child only knows English but rest of family speaks Arabic at home. Problematic and something Mrs I bitterly regrets.
  • Only case in project where family seems to have accepted professional advice unquestionably, with quite distressing results
attachment to the ethnic community
Attachment to the ethnic community
  • Families V, S, I and M still moved almost exclusively in co-ethnic social circles
  • No coincidence that all bar I decided to keep using the ethnic language with their deaf child and stressed in the interviews how important it was that their child kept the language for religious, cultural and familial reasons – here ‘standard’ reasons for language maintenance have trumped any concerns about the child’s hearing loss and language development
  • Family B also have strong links to Lao community, but Mrs B only introduced Lao to her daughter once she was sure her English was developing well
extent of hearing loss and language development
Extent of hearing loss and language development
  • While families initially might be guided by other factors, the extent to which they persist with their code choice patterns will be partly determined by the child’s progress
  • Families B and S had the most success raising bilingual children (with no diagnosed language delay in English) – no coincidence that these children also appeared to have some of the highest levels of residual hearing (and S had a post-lingual hearing loss at 18 months), so had more to work with when learning languages
  • At the other end of the spectrum, families M and V both report deliberately introducing more English into the home after becoming concern about their child’s progress in English
  • Family N now feeling comfortable enough about son’s English that he started Lebanese classes last year
studying the ethnic language
Studying the ethnic language
  • A surprising finding for me was that the five of the seven deaf children had studied their ethnic language at after-hours ethnic schools
  • Issue with ethnic school teachers having little training or support for working with deaf (or other disabled) students – sometimes worked out OK, but sometimes very ineffective
  • Shows too how much parents still value their ethnic languages, not willing to give up in the face of deafness
  • Runs very contra to advice some receive from case managers and Teachers of the Deaf and may be a source of conflict
schooling for deaf migrants
Schooling for deaf migrants
  • When deaf children of migrants hit school, few teachers see their ESL background as relevant
  • Garcia (1995) notes this means they are at risk of being diagnosed as language delayed, and may not be given appropriate support
  • Can also leave schools blind to areas where the parents may not be able to assist their deaf child (e.g. in expanding their English vocabulary)
an example
An example
  • Mrs V reported that earlier in the year she had had some extended discussions with her son’s teacher about his English development. It was agreed that her son was having difficulties mastering English spelling, and that he also needed assistance in developing his understanding and use of metaphors and what Mrs V termed the “chit-chat” elements of English (presumably pragmatic competence). While these are hardly unusual problems for a deaf child to have, Mrs V felt largely powerless to assist her son in these areas because they are precisely the points where she feels her own English competence is lacking.
the solution to date
The solution to date
  • In actual fact, she does seem to be engaging with some tasks with her son designed for them both to practice their English literacy skills, however one can clearly see that a parent with limited English proficiency is in a much weaker position to perform remedial work with a deaf child struggling to learn English than an Anglo parent used to interacting in English all the time. In this case, Mrs V reports telling the teacher that her son’s English development in these areas would need to stay in the schools’ hands, however it is unknown how well equipped the particular school is to deal with the challenges that this situation presents.
the avoidance of sign languages
The avoidance of sign languages
  • None of the families used a sign language with their deaf child (children B and V knew some Auslan from school)
  • Parents seemed to have the attitude that since their child had some hearing (B, N, V, and Z had cochlear implants; I, M and S hearing aids) sign languages weren’t necessary
  • Mother Z had also been advised that introducing Auslan would interfere with attempts to teach her daughter oral skills
  • Parents seem to have had very limited opportunities (and time) to acquire Auslan should they have wanted to do so
implications of these findings
Implications of these findings
  • Clearly a number of families are bringing up deaf children using migrant languages at home and case managers, Auslan interpreters and teachers of the deaf need training in working with linguistically diverse clients
  • NESB families require greater support to make genuine choices about the language(s) they use with their deaf children and other aspects of their child’s education
  • Need for better cooperation and information sharing between deafness and migrant welfare agencies to ensure families gain access to information and support, and that deafness services are delivered in a culturally-competent manner
  • All of these will rely on greater funding provisions being made to allow these issues to be adequately addressed