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Language Development of Hispanic Deaf Children

By Susan Antunez

Key words: Deaf Education Information, documents

Deaf students of Hispanic-American heritage are the most rapidly growing minority group among the deaf population. The challenge faced by Hispanic hearing impaired children is unique. They are faced with the task of learning two languages-- ASL and English-- and two cultures-- American and Deaf, while being exposed to the Spanish language and Hispanic culture at home. In addition to their sensory impairment, Hispanic deaf students have cultural and linguistic differences which exacerbate the already formidable task of acquiring language.

According to Moores (cited in Luetke-Stahlman & Weiner, 1982) Hispanics accounted for 9.4% of the total hearing-impaired population during the 1978-79 school year. In 1988-89, the Annual Survey of Hearing Impaired Children and Youth reported that 12.9% of the hearing impaired school population is Hispanic (Center of Assessment and Demographic Studies, 1988-89). In 1993, the Current Population Survey showed there were 22.8 million Hispanics in this country (U.S. Census Bureau, 1993) and Andrews and Jordan repot that the number of Hispanic deaf students has increased to 15% in 1997 (1997).

Given the rapidly occurring changes that exist within the population of Hispanic Deaf students, the development of effective programs has been slow and minimal. As early as 1975, reports were being published alerting professionals of the low academic achievement of Hispanic deaf students. In a national survey on reading and vocabulary skills in deaf children, the Office of Demographic Studies at Gallaudet College (cited in Christensen, 1985) reports that "the lowest mean scores were obtained by students of Spanish-American descent." Recently, Allen (cited in Andrews & Jordan, 1997) found similar results among Hispanic deaf students. Allen reports that the 50th percentile reading comprehension scores for Hispanic deaf students was eleven scaled points less than the 50th percentile for white deaf eight year olds. Also, Wolk and Shildroth (cited in Smith, 1997) state that their speech is more likely to be classified as less intelligible.

As stated earlier, one of the major reasons for underachievement in deaf students who are Hispanic is the lack of educational and social programs available to this minority group. Hearing impairment is generally identified later in children from non-English speaking homes than in children from English -speaking homes (Blackwell & Fischgrund, 1984). These same authors state that the main variables are parent educational level, availability of medical services and rural/urban backgrounds, among others. Along with the late identification of Hispanic deaf students is the common lack of importance parents give to the use of hearing aids by their young children. The use of amplification devices may be important to the interventionist, but the parents may have never heard of such devices or are preoccupied with the basic necessities of life (Blackwell & Fischgrund, 1984). Blackwell and Fischgrund also state that intervention is the most important aspect of early language development (1984).

To meet the growing needs of this large minority group, educators have adopted models from the field of bilingual education. The most commonly used model is the transitional model, in which children with limited English proficiency are instructed in their primary language and are provided with ESL (English as a Second Language) instruction (Blackwell & Fischgrund, 1984). However, this is an even greater task when it relates to Hispanic deaf children because of the need to determine a first language upon which to build English skills. Luetke-Stahlman and Weiner (1982) state that neither heritage nor etiological classification should dictate the primary language. "Depending upon the degree of hearing loss and the assimilation of the family into the English-speaking society, Spanish may not function as the first language for Hispanic deaf children...rather a combination of Spanish, English and sign may serve as the primary language" (Luetke-Stahlman & Weiner, 1982, p. 789).

Hispanic deaf students may have limited exposure to several languages such as Spanish, Spanish sign, English, and/or English sign language (e.g. ASL). Luetke-Stahlman and Weiner (1982) recommended that each child be given the opportunity to demonstrate which language is most appropriate. In testing for the primary language, Fischgrund (1982) states that "grammar, that is morphology and syntax, and semantics and pragmatics combined provide useful measures" (p. 100). Prior to the passage of PL 94-142, which requires that achievement tests be performed in the child's native language, Hispanic deaf children were tested in English, the results of such invalid tests indicated no language. "Since exposure to language is the first step in language development, hearing impaired children entering educational programs, no matter how severe their hearing loss, have already begun the process of language acquisition" (Fischgrund, 1982, p.95). Dean (1984) states that "language does not exist by itself, it functions as a link between the child's expressive and receptive self and environment" (p.66).

Once the primary language has been identified, problems in using the language to learn a second language and in the case of the deaf child, a third language, begin to surface. Some of these problems in language acquisition include confusing auditory stimuli at home and at school (Kopp,1981), confusing lip-reading skills used for English with Spanish used at home (Secada, 1984), parents unable to understand the child's English sign language system (Secada, 1984) and the child's lack of awareness that three languages exist and when each is being used or should be used (Blackwell & Fischgrund, 1984). The cognitive load these children must have in order to become trilingual requires the rapid cognitive processing of diverse code systems (Kopp, 1981). Problems concerning the communication between the Spanish-speaking hearing parent and their deaf child are also prevalent. For instance, not all non-English-speaking parents will be able to acquire Total Communication skills, English and ASL. The child is being taught ASL or another English sign system and English at school, but at home the parents may only know Spanish. This scenario can be extremely confusing for a small child. Many professional suggest using sign language as a bridge between Spanish and English (Christensen, 1985). It may be extremely difficult for non-English-speaking parents to acquire English quickly enough to catch up to what the child is being taught in school. However, researchers suggest that it is much easier for parents to acquire ASL because it is not syntax-bound or arbitrary like English (Christensen, 1985). Christensen states that ASL tends to be globally iconic and speakers of two different languages can communicate through ASL effectively.

Teaching three languages simultaneously to deaf children is also problematic. "One of the most critical considerations in combining two spoken languages and one visual-gestural language is semantics" (Christensen, 1985, p. 247). For example, in both Spanish and English one spoken word may have several meanings. The student must understand the meaning of what is being said rather than what is heard. An example of this would be idioms in English, Spanish or both which do not translate word for word in ASL, such as "It's raining cats and dogs." Another consideration is that the use of fingerspelling is limited because the child must be fluent in the language from which the word originates (Christensen, 1985). Some words in one language do not exist in another, so in order to understand the word that is being spoken, the individual must first experience the object or activity to which it refers.

In sum, Hispanic children who are deaf are expected to become trilingual and tricultural. If this is to occur successfully, several aspects must be considered. These include providing early intervention, identifying the primary instructional language, conducting fair and appropriate assessment, recruiting ethnically diverse professionals, modifying curriculum and instruction to include all three languages and cultures, and continuing to document research and findings (Smith, 1997).


Andrews, J.F. & Jordan, D.L. (1997). Lamar University Home Page.[On-Line]. Available:

Blackwell, P.M. & Fischgrund, J.E. (1984). Issues in the Development of Culturally Responsive Programs for Deaf Students from Non-English-Speaking Homes. In The Hispanic Deaf, Delgado, G.L. (Ed.). Washington, D.C.:Gallaudet College Press.

Christensen, K.G. (1985). Conceptual Sign Language as a Bridge Between English and Spanish. American Annals of the Deaf,130(3), 244-249.

Dean, C.C. (1984). The Hearing-Impaired Child: Sociolinguistic Considerations. In The Hispanic Deaf, Deagado, G.L. (Ed.). Washington, D.C.:Gallaudet College Press.

Fischgrund, J.E. (1984). Language Intervention for the Hearing-Impaired Children from Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Backgrounds. In The Hispanic Deaf, Delgado, G.L. (Ed.). Washington, D.C.:Gallaudet College Press.

Holt, J. & Hotto,S. (Eds.) (1994). Gallaudet University's Center for Assessment and Demographic Studies Home Page. [On-line]. Available:

Kopp, H.G. (1984). Bilingual Problems of the Hispanic Deaf. In The Hispanic Deaf, Delgado, G.L. (Ed.). Washington, D.C.:Gallaudet College Press.

Luetke-Stahlman, B. & Weiner, F. F. (1982). Assessing Language and/or System Preferences of Spanish-Deaf Preschoolers. American Annals of the Deaf,127(6) 789-96.

Secada, W.G. (1984). The Language of Instruction for Hearing-Impaired Students from Non-English-Speaking Homes: A Framework for Considering Alternatives. In The Hispanic Deaf, Delgado, G.L. (Ed.). Washington, D.C.:Gallaudet College Press.

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