Today, UNESCO celebrated International Mother Language Day with the slogan “Books for Mother tongue education”. Linguists in the Caribbean have argued for many years that the mother tongue of many children in the region is a creole language, and yet these languages have frequently been denigrated and even explicitly banned in classrooms, with depressingly predictable results. People learn best in their native language, so to exclude it from the education system makes no sense.
In many parts of the world (Trinidad and Tobago included), the sign languages of Deaf adults have also been banned from use in schools. Deaf children have been forced to hold their hands behind their backs or sit on them to make sure that they don’t sign.* When it comes to deaf children, however, the notion of ‘mother tongue’, is complicated. First, and most obviously, sign languages are not articulated (primarily) with tongues; this is one reason why ‘mother language’ is sometimes preferred over ‘mother tongue’. Second, the vast majority of deaf children (over ninety percent) have mothers who are hearing, and who do not know a sign language.
If we take ‘mother language’ literally, to mean the language of one’s mother, then for many deaf children, their mother language is a spoken language, which they cannot hear, and will struggle to acquire. The results of forcing deaf children into speech-only educational programmes have tended to be disastrous (though, in particular cases it can work).
Members of Deaf communities often have strong feelings about deaf education, and argue that it is vitally important that deaf children be exposed to a natural sign language as early as possible. Depriving a young child of accessible language risks long term damage. On the other hand, hearing parents of deaf children, quite naturally, generally want to help their children to learn to speak, and worry that without good speech, they will be at a huge disadvantage.
The very different perspectives of hearing parents of deaf children and deaf adults can lead to much conflict, unhappiness and miscommunication. Take the question of cochlear implants: to many hearing parents, these seem to provide a nearly miraculous way of making their children ‘normal’ and allowing them to learn to speak; Deaf adults are often concerned that parents are not given information about alternative approaches, about the existence of Deaf communities and their sign languages, and many resent the suggestion that deaf people need to be ‘fixed’.**
Of course there are middle ways. Children with cochlear implants can be brought up bilingual, learning to sign and to speak. Research has shown that there are real cognitive benefits of growing up bilingual. Under normal circumstances we only have one mother, but that doesn’t mean we must only have one mother language.
In the last year, a group of parents of deaf children in T&T, along with teachers, sign language interpreters and others, got together to form WeCare Deaf Support Network. This group has begun collaborating with the Deaf Empowerment Organisation of Trinidad and Tobago to raise awareness of the problems in Deaf education, sharing their experiences and encouraging people around the country to take sign language classes.
As a hearing parent, it takes commitment and courage to step into a new culture which you knew nothing about, and in which, at least at first, you are a stranger, to learn a new language and to encourage your child to develop a mother language which will always be at least a little bit foreign to you. But when hearing parents and Deaf adults do join together and find a common cause, great things can be achieved.
*This doesn’t happen any more in T&T, where signing is now accepted in the deaf schools
**For some idea of the differences of opinion you could watch the documentary film Sound and Fury.