LINGUIST List 10.174

Thu Feb 4 1999

Disc: Sign Language & Cochlear Implants

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Martin Haspelmath, Will sign languages become extinct?

Message 1: Will sign languages become extinct?

Date: Thu, 04 Feb 1999 13:34:54 +0000
From: Martin Haspelmath <>
Subject: Will sign languages become extinct?

I have a question about the effect of cochlear implants on the use of
sign language among deaf people.

Cochlear implant technology now often allows deaf people access to
sensory stimulation in the speech frequencies, which ideally means
that they can acquire language in the normal way. I am interested in
information on the effect that this relatively new technology might
have had on the use of sign language, both at the individual level and
at the social level.

At the social level: Does this mean that sign languages such as ASL
will soon be endangered languages (in the wealthy countries at least)?

At the individual level: Should children with cochlear implants (CIs)
be deprived of sign language input because that would discourage them
from using their hearing abilities?

There seems to be a heated discussion of these matters currently in
Germany, judging by a recent article in DER SPIEGEL newsmagazine. It
reported the (socialdemocratic-green) Hessen state government's recent
decision to provide teaching also in German Sign Language (DGS) in
educational institutions for the Deaf. Traditionally, sign language
has apparently been a vernacular without any status in education in

Now many representatives of Deaf organizations seem to be arguing that
cochlear implants make sign language superfluous, and CI children
should not be distracted from the real task of acquiring spoken
language by being taught sign language.

Linguists have of course argued for some time that sign languages are
"real", full languages with all the complexity and subtlety of spoken
languages, but of course spoken languages are more widely used and in
this sense more useful. So in this case everybody should be happy if
DGS, ASL etc. become soon extinct. Normally, linguists deplore the
loss of a language -- but this case is different, right?

Or are matters more complex?

I'd be interested in answers, further questions, references, etc.

Martin Haspelmath

Max-Planck-Institut fuer evolutionaere Anthropologie, Inselstr. 22
D-04103 Leipzig (Tel. (MPI) +49-341-9952 307, (priv.) +49-341-980 1616)
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