LINGUIST List 10.214

Wed Feb 10 1999

Sum: Cochlear Implants and Sign Language

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Martin Haspelmath, Sum: Cochlear implants and sign language

Message 1: Sum: Cochlear implants and sign language

Date: Tue, 09 Feb 1999 18:08:12 +0000
From: Martin Haspelmath <>
Subject: Sum: Cochlear implants and sign language

Last week I posted a query on the effect of cochlear implant (CI)
technology on the use of sign language. My question originated in a
recent article in the German newsmagazine DER SPIEGEL, which portrayed
CI technology as a real alternative to sign language and argued against
the use of sign in deaf education.

I got lots of replies which are almost unanimous in most respects. This
is of course a highly politicized matter, and I was surprised to hear no
opposing voices -- maybe they are not to be found among linguists. The
most important points of the respondents were the following:

- CI technology is not sufficiently developed at present that one can
say that CI users hear in the same way hearing people -- it seems to be
more a simulation of hearing. Children with CIs need a lot of teaching
and speech therapy in order to acquire spoken language, so the CI does
not allow effortless acquisition of spoken language.

- There is no evidence whatsoever that knowledge of sign language
interferes with the acquisition of spoken language, and thus there is no
reason to deprive CI children of sign language input. On the contrary,
CI children need a language they feel at ease with to cope with
potential problems of using the CI.

- CI technology is opposed by many Deaf organizations, because they see
it as another attempt of hearing people to marginalize the Deaf and to
make deafness appear as a defect. It is also noted that the hearing aid
industry benefits from CIs, so there are economic interests here as

- Deaf organizations generally oppose CIs, especially for young
children who were born deaf.

- Only the rich can afford CIs, which again means that there is no
great impact on sign language (however, this seems to be true only for
countries with no health care system like the US -- the situation in
most European countries seems to be different)

- Sign languages are important for our understanding of language, and
they are "worth keeping around".

I found this latter argument problematic -- of course, sign languages
are good for linguists, but that is no reason to "keep them around".
Similarly, we wouldn't tell speakers of Sorbian (an endangered Slavic
language in Germany) to continue speaking Sorbian just because it would
be a pity for linguists if this language became extinct. The people
themselves have to decide.
Several respondents admitted that if CI technology improves
significantly in the coming decades, the situation might change, and
sign language may indeed become endangered at some point -- but everyone
was skeptical.

I was wondering to what extent the situation in the US is perhaps
different from the situation in other countries, e.g. in Europe. In the
US, there are many ethnic subcultures, so there is a positive model for
a separate Deaf culture. Europeans may have greater problems identifying
fully with a self-contained Deaf community, so maybe this means that
people will be more ready to rely on CIs even at this relatively early
point in the development of the technology. But this may be a wrong

The following people responded to my query -- thanks to all of them:
James Fidelholtz, Tracy Mansfield, Frank Bechter, Rachel Lagunoff,
Donald Grushkin, B. Wald, Nancy Frishberg, Lawrence Crowell, Joerg
Keller, Irene Greftegreff, Lakshmi Fjord, Bernard Comrie, Coln Whiteley,
Inge Zwitserlood, Peter Daniels, Andy Kaplan-Myrth, Paul Chapin, Nan
Decker, Harlan Lane, Bernd Rehling, Francois Grosjean, Robin Battison,
Roland Ilenborg, Ed Watts

Some references:

Lane, Harlan. 1984. When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf. New
York: Random House.

Lane, Harlan. 1992. The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf
Community. New York: Vintage. (Original hardcover Alfred A. Knopf.)

Lane, Harlan, Hoffmeister, Robert & Bahan, Ben. 1996. A Journey into
Deaf-World. San Diego: DawnSignPress.

Padden, Carol & Humphries, Tom. 1988. Deaf in America: Voices from a
Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Unviversity Press.

Sacks, Oliver: Seeing voices

Van Cleve, John Vickery & Crouch, Barry A. 1989. A Place of Their Own:

Creating the Deaf Community in America. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet
University Press.

The article in DER SPIEGEL which prompted my posting, together with a
highly critical commentary, can be found at

Martin Haspelmath

Dr. 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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