LINGUIST List 10.185

Sat Feb 6 1999

Disc: Sign Language & Cochlear Implants

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. JudiLabath, Re: 10.174, Disc: Sign Language & Cochlear Implants
  2. Lorraine Leeson, Sign Langauge and Cochlear Implants

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

Date: Fri, 5 Feb 1999 16:58:18 EST
From: JudiLabath <>
Subject: Re: 10.174, Disc: Sign Language & Cochlear Implants

The question of cochlear implants making sign language obsolete is a "here we
go again" situation. To my knowledge, current technology allows for a 27
channel input of speech sound. As linguists we can imagine that this is like
seeing only primary colors without being able to see the subtle hints and
tints that the world of colors offers. Many children currently implanted are
using sign language (as observed at a Deaf Awareness Day function) because it
is a language open to them without restrictions. Many of my adult friends
with choclear implants (CI) have discontinued using their very expensive
equipment. Of the 50 or more people that I have known with CI, two have had
real success. Both were deafened as teenagers, being fully aware of the
nature and sounds of English and speech. One had learned sign language and
continued to use it as a preferred language. (Hers was an early version with
less channels than are available today.) The other never had the opportunity
for learning sign language, however, even with the CI she still must tell
everyone to please face her, not obstruct her view of their lips in order to
lip read, or she will miss some of the information. 

Now, one hundred years ago, the followers of the speech reading and speaking
technique convinced educators world wide to discourage sign language use
because it would stymie the development of speech. Fortunately for the many
deaf people using sign language today, that proved impossible as well as
ineffective. Those who have been allowed free access to any language that is
accessible, sign language for example, often have success in learning spoken
language as a second language. It saddens me to think that after the progress
make in recognizing sign languages as legitimate languages and removing some
of the stigma that has oppressed deaf people over the centuries, new
technology has become an excuse to continue the oppression. Not every deaf
person will find CI helpful, even the promoters will acknowledge this. Sign
language is accessible and something that those who are not deaf can learn.
CI have a function, especially for people who have well developed spoken
language skills that lose their hearing. But as a linguist, I sincerely hope
this does not become an excuse to cause any language used by a speech
community to cease to exist. Furthermore, I sincerely hope that linguists are
not going to support the promotion of such an act.
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Message 2: Sign Langauge and Cochlear Implants

Date: Sat, 6 Feb 1999 15:24:44 -0000
From: Lorraine Leeson <>
Subject: Sign Langauge and Cochlear Implants

I have been very interested in this discussion, particularly given that the
originator of this piece is European. I am in agreement with the responses
put forward by Nancy Frisberg and 'bwald'. I would add that in many cases,
the choice between spoken language or signed langauge for children who have
received Cochlear Implants does not have to become an either or debate.
Leaving the ethics of implantation aside for a moment, I would like to point
out that in Ireland, Dr. Laura Vianni, a CI surgeon has gone on record as
saying that as long as a child has language - regardless of modality- it
should be encouraged.

Martin Haspelmath aslo raised a question about the social function of sign
languages and asked whetehr they were on their way to being extinct.
Considering this social element, I think it is fair to say that in Europe,
the status of sign languages is becoming a political issue: the European
Commission funded an EU research project to explore the status of sign
languages (1997: Sign On Europe Report), many European countries have
recognised the status of sign langauges within their legal systems: In
Ireland, we have just included recognition of the right of the deaf child to
access education via Irish Sign LAnguage under the remit of a new Education
Bill. These are moves in the right direction which should begin to allow
politically active Deaf communities and us hearing people who are privileged
enough to work with Deaf people to feel that sign langues are beginning to
find their rightful place on the language stage....Now all we need is
funding to actually document these predominantly undescribed/ underdescribed
langauges! We still have a long way to go, but I think we are now moving in
the right direction.
Lorraine Leeson
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