LINGUIST List 10.178

Fri Feb 5 1999

Disc: Sign Language & Chochlear Implants

Editor for this issue: Jody Huellmantel <>


  1. bwald, Re: 10.174, Disc: Sign Language & Cochlear Implants
  2. Nancy Frishberg, Re: 10.174, Disc: Sign Language & Cochlear Implants

Message 1: Re: 10.174, Disc: Sign Language & Cochlear Implants

Date: Thu, 4 Feb 1999 20:42:15 -0800 (PST)
From: bwald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 10.174, Disc: Sign Language & Cochlear Implants

Martin Haspelmath wrote:

>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?

They're more complex. I have witnessed meetings, etc., where leaders
of deaf communities in the US have expressed their opposition to the
idea of cochlear implants for their communities. Obviously it is a
threat to community coherence and integrity -- but one argument
against it was that it was offered as if deafness is a "defect", and
they deny that it is a defect. The possibility of cochlear implants
tests the cultural allegiances of members of the deaf *community*. It
should not be surprising that more than just professional deaf people
feel such an allegiance in view of their enculturation, and are not
eager to cast themselves into a community of hearing people, a
community they ordinarily interact with mainly through translators and
other bi-modals (did I just coin that word?).

[Emotionally, you have to understand, much of the organised deaf
community feels it has come a long way overcoming the past obstacles
to the effect that only a spoken language is a "real" language, that
one must speak in order to behave "appropriately" in "society" (to be
considered fully "human"), and that they were subjected in the past to
being forced to learn how to speak at the expense of being taught how
to sign. In other words, and this goes back centuries, deaf people
were taught to behave in a way that was CONVENIENT for the dominant
hearing group. I'm sure this is one of the undercurrents in denying
that deafness is a "defect".]

On the other hand, there are people who are legally deaf, or even
totally deaf, who do not associate with the deaf community.
Generally, the difference is between those who were born deaf (or at
least bnecame deaf before they acquired spoken language) and those who
became deaf later in life, but that is not always the case. In any
case, I also know (legally) deaf people who have had successful
cochlear implants (they were never part of the deaf community, the
ones I know). So there is a strong cultural and political component
to the issue, apart from whatever interests linguists may have in the

As for linguists, I see the attempt in the question to put them in a
"moral" quandry. I'm not biting. I'll leave it up to the "deaf" to
pursue the issue.


Martin leads to the "moral" dilemma by stating:

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

For the present, you have to be personally "wealthy", not just live in a
"wealthy" country, to be able to afford a state of the art cochlear
implant. Strange as it may seem, some might prefer to buy a Lexus with the
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Message 2: Re: 10.174, Disc: Sign Language & Cochlear Implants

Date: Thu, 4 Feb 1999 23:15:02 -0800
From: Nancy Frishberg <>
Subject: Re: 10.174, Disc: Sign Language & Cochlear Implants

Oh, Martin, things are more complex!

First get hold of a copy of Harlan Lane's book from several years ago
called "The Mask of Benevolence" (Knopf, 1992) in which he indicts a
whole set of attitudes which he characterizes as "audism" on analogy
with "sexism, racism,..." etc., namely the attitude that hearing is
always better than non-hearing and that the values associated with
hearing weigh in as more important than those associated with
deafness. Audism equates deafness with impairment, brokenness, etc.
The subtitle of the book is "Disabling the Deaf Community".

Lane also looks at the data on cochlear implants (at least what was
known up to then) and in a long and complex set of arguments concludes
that it is unethical to implant children, given that the surgery has
such failure rate, that the costs (both in money and in time/effort on
the part of the child and the family) overshadow everything. The
surgery is destructive of the physical structure of the cochlea and
other parts of the ear, so should some later therapy be discovered
with less invasive procedure, these CIs would not be candidates for
any other surgical procedure. The hours of rehabilitation for CIs
rivals the hours of practice for competition sports, with as much
psychological pressure to succeed. Who wins most in the CI model?
Medical and allied health professionals without a doubt in monetary

Of course for adults (those who were born deaf or those who lost their
hearing) it is a totally different matter: they are making decisions
for themselves.

The fiction being sold to parent of deaf infants and children is that
somehow the CI will make your child non-deaf. Not true. Even the
successful CI is a deaf person, where "successful" means the surgery
worked, the device works, and the individual learns to interpret the
signals as speech/noise/meaningful.

Sign languages have always been endangered languages, as far as I can
see. We have records of the existence of sign languages sporadically
from ancient times, but the contemporary American, (British,
German...) situation is the longest continuous tradition of sign
languages that we have documented. There are a few isolates where
there seems to be an equally long tradition, but nothing longer. More
familiar is the lone deaf individual or couple of families in a
community. When they die or intermarry or migrate the budding
language disappears.

You ask:

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

This question is actually two questions, but often get conflated and
thus confuse people. I'd even argue that the advocates of oral(-only)
education intentionally confuse these two issues. Let me separate the
 a Should children with cochlear implants be deprived of sign language input?
 b Does sign language input discourage the use of speech/audition in deaf

To a) I'd answer no, for all the social reasons. A mature deaf person
will inevitably want to interact with people of all backgrounds.
There are issues of policy and social adjustment that would make
interaction with deaf people of all backgrounds useful, even
pleasurable. Notice I don't even argue the case for formal education
in sign language here. Lane notices (whether in this book or some
other place, I don't recall) that there are examples of deaf
individuals who in adulthood give up their oral-only training to adopt
a sign-only communication preference. He asks for an example of even
one deaf adult who has given up sign language to adopt an oral-only
stance. I don't know of any of the latter, but certainly can point
you to several of the former. In fact the anecdotes I know of are of
CIs who as teens and young adults refuse to use the device, because it
is so effective at making them different looking (subjecting them to
teasing by their peers - those hearing kids that they're supposed to
be integrating seamlessly with), and so marginally effective in its
original purpose.

To b) I ask rhetorically, does the acquisition of English prevent the
acquisition of German or Swahili? If we as linguists truly believe
that ASL (DGS, etc.) are real languages, then we cannot defend the
"yes" response to the question. There are lots of motivations in the
culture that make it useful for deaf individuals to learn
spoken/written language(s). Let's bolster those, but not at the
expense of providing a strong model of a language that's completely
accessible at the earliest ages, right on up through university.

You wrote:
>Now many representatives of Deaf organizations seem to be arguing that
>cochlear implants make sign language superfluous...

We reserve the use of the capitalized term Deaf for the sense
ethnically-deaf, culturally-deaf, as distinct from audiologically deaf
(where we use lower case). ("We" here are the scholars and advocates
involved in sign language studies, deaf studies, etc.) Therefore I
doubt that the representatives of Deaf organizations make the argument
as you claim. Rather I expect that these are the representatives of
deaf organizations (speech and hearing societies, hearing
rehabilitation, social service agencies, etc.). It is they who put on
the mask of benevolence.

In the 1910's the US National Association of the Deaf made several
films of prominent teachers and civic leaders. Among the most
well-cited of those films is the one by George Veditz, the first
president of the NAD, in which he argues for the preservation of the
sign language (meaning ASL, which had not yet been so named), noting
that his deaf counterparts in Europe were oppressed by not being able
to use their signing in public, and their signing was in danger of
disappearing. Sign languages have been under siege before, have gone
underground and survived. In Germany look to your colleagues at
University of Hamburg for having created much awareness of sign
language in German-speaking geographies, promoting international
cooperation around technical issues (notation, lexicography, etc.),
and developing training opportunities in linguistics and related
fields for Deaf individuals.

Nancy Frishberg +1 650.654.1948
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