Language Acquisition in Exceptional Circumstances

Language Acquisition has been a topic of interest for heaps of clever investigators and theorists over the past century. Whilst there are general similarities amongst children learning language, not every child develops in this way. This page explores the complex, exciting development of children who learn language differently to a typically developing child.  
Language Development of Deaf Children

Emery Co Photo

90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, meaning just 10% of the deaf population are likely to be raised in a fluent sign language environment. Unsurprisingly, the range in linguistic ability in deaf children is huge.

The variety amongst deaf speakers doesn't end there. There are hundreds of different sign languages across the globe including 36 different varieties across Europe alone! 50,000 people use British Sign Language as their first language in the U.K and a whopping 2,000,000 signers use American Sign Language every day!
Sign vs. Vocal Language

Whilst children born to hearing parents may not have the same exposure to sign language, those that are surrounded by sign language develop language at the same rate, if not sooner than hearing children. This recent discovery has resulted in millions of enthusiastic parents teaching  signs to hearing babies in an attempt to encourage their language development [1].

When a hearing child is learning language, he or she may explore an object while a parent names the object aloud. This routine is simple when both visual and audio input are available to the child. The added obstacle for parents of a deaf child is firstly attracting the child to an object and then providing the child with a sign. Parents have a number of methods to help with this process, including:
  1. Leaning into the child's visual field and repeating the sign
  2. Signing on the child's body
  3. Moving the child's hands
  4. Using visual material such as picture books and picture cards
Below is a video demonstrating some of the methods of teaching sign language to young children:

It doesn't end here...

Sign Language isn't the only language deaf individuals can acquire. 'Lip reading' also known as 'speech reading' is one of the most popular forms of communication aside from sign language. However, just 30% of spoken English is visible. For example, Bilabial sounds (sounds made with both lips, like 'p', 'b' and 'm') are impossible to distinguish. Try silently mouthing the words pale, male and bail to a friend - they will think you've repeated one word three times!

The 'bionic ear'

A very recent technological breakthrough in audio technology has transformed the hearing of thousands of profoundly deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Cochlear implants send sound past the damaged area of the ear and straight to auditory nerve and then to the brain, which recognizes the signals as sound. After four decades of scientific trial and error, the cochlear implant has been released universally, providing those with the very least audio ability a chance to hear. Also referred to as the 'bionic ear', the cochlear implant is now available to children as young as two, meaning spoken language acquisition may replace a child's dependency on sign language.

For more information on the cochlear implant and its benefits to the deaf community, click here.

Child Directed Speech in Sign Language?

There have been a number of studies on the sign language used by a parent to their child.

The results show larger, more clearly presented signing, slower movements and much shorter utterances. Interestingly, like child directed speech, research shows children respond better to this form of signing than signing directed at adults [2].

Children's Sign Language Errors

Unlike verbal communication, sign language is visually prominent and editable, so parental corrections are much more practical and direct. So these children should clear up any confusion in no time, right? Wrong! Correcting a child learning sign language is just as ineffective as a correcting a child learning spoken language! See support for nativism for more information.

The Language Development of Blind Children

Imagine entering the world without the ability to see any of the world around you. Do you think learning new skills would be harder if you couldn't see? Imagine trying to learn new sounds without the visual demonstration of others to help you. Blind children do not have the ability to observe objects or see things in their natural environment. Additionally, there is no opportunity to recognise non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, gestures and body movements. Do you think this would put blind children at a disadvantage?

According to Monti Civelli (1983) there are no differences between the language of sighted and the language of blind adolescents of equal intellect. It appears blind children don't need sight to learn language adequately. After reading how typically developing children learn language, some of you may be wondering how this can be!
What do we know?

The proportion of blind children in the U.K is still relatively small: 'There are an estimated 25,000 blind and partially sighted children in Britain, which is just 2 in every 1,000 children'. (Morris and Smith, 2008). For these reasons, research into the development of blind children before the 1970s was non-existent. Recent interest has focused on comparisons with sighted children. Whilst some researchers are unhappy with comparing sighted and non sighted children in fear of discriminating against the minority, this method has provided us with an interesting insight into blind children's language development:
  • A.E Mills [2] conducted a study on three blind children and compared their development with three sighted children. He found the speech sounds that are easily seen when produced (such as b, th-) are developed later in the language of blind children, whereas the sounds that are less visible (for example: k,g,h) are learned at the same rate as sighted children. Interestingly, these sounds are learned eventually, suggesting children don't need a visual example when learning sounds. 
  • According to multiple studies, blind children typically produce their first word at the same age as sighted children. It seems visual impairment doesn't affect children producing early words. 
  • By having no sight, blind children develop a greater understanding of the things that rely on other senses, namely hearing and touch.
  • Picture books on exotic animals or unusual experiences are not accessible to blind children, meaning vocabulary of this nature is generally delayed. This conclusion has caused a surge of interest in making this vocabulary accessible for blind children.
  • Blind Children have a greater tendency to produce personal social words and words surrounding the home. The reasons for this is still uncertain: it could be anything from the language exposure of the child to the difference of interests between blind and sighted children.
Some of these findings make some important distinctions between the development of sighted and the development of non-sighted children, perhaps indicating that we benefit from having all five senses to pick up information from our environment. This kind research has been crucial in supporting nurture over nature in the Nature vs. Nurture debate.

What makes blind language acquisition so fascinating?

The development of language for any child is an outstanding achievement, but a child who manages to acquire language without the use of sight is even more remarkable. Some of the questions that intrigue linguists today include:
  • How does a blind child describe colours? What is their perception of things such as light and dark, fluorescent and shadow?
  • What does a blind child understand by the words look and see?
  • How do blind children describe things they haven't experienced, such as unusual animals?
  • Research into how blind children learn language will show us new and effective ways to teach language and encourage their speech. Specialised centres and societies have already been established to develop the language and social skills of blind children, using specialist toys and materials designed to teach children in ways that will benefit them the most.