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How does bilingualism work in deaf people?

With more than seven thousand languages and dialects in the world, it is normal that bilingualism is necessary in many places. But what about deaf people? Are they also able to communicate bilingually?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines bilingualism as “the ability to speak two languages”. Bilingualism exists all over the world. With more than seven thousand languages and dialects in the world, it is normal that people come into contact with other languages, fostering bilingualism. But what about deaf people? Are they also able to communicate bilingually?

The answer to this questions is “yes”. Bilinguals can be immigrants who learn the language of the new country or children who are raised in a bilingual family. Deaf people often speak a sign language, which can be seen as their mother tongue. Additionally, they learn the language that is spoken the most in the country they live in, mainly in written form, but also in oral form and by lip-reading.

80.000 deaf people live in the Federal Republic of Germany. According to the Deutscher Schwerhörigenbund (DSB), 16 million people are hearing-impaired in Germany. Around 140.000 of those have a degree of disability of more than 70% and rely on a sign language interpreter.

Visual Languages

Sign languages are visual languages and they can, just as spoken languages, be differentiated in national languages and regional dialects. In the fifties and sixties, it was discovered that American Sign Language (ASL) has it’s own grammar and it’s virtually able to do the everything a spoken language can do. German Sign Language (DGS) was legally recognized by the DGB as a distinct language.

Through sign language, deaf children have a basic language which they can learn as natural as hearing children learn a spoken language. After mastering the sign language, they have a linguistic basis allowing them to learn the spoken language.

Bilingual and bicultural State

In the late seventies, scientists discovered that deaf people live in a bilingual and bicultural state. For example, children who grow up with a German and an American parent impart elements of both cultures. These children are considered bicultural.

The same goes for deaf children. They are confronted daily with two languages and two cultures: sign language and the culture of deaf people and spoken language and the culture of hearing people. They choose the suitable language depending on the interlocutor: sign language for deaf people and the majority language for hearing people.

Such examples of linguistic development are comparable to the development of hearing bilingual children. Sign language and spoken language are two different languages for these children and are differentiated accordingly.

In her dissertation titled “Bilingualism and the cultural identity in deaf people”, Jessica Wallace came to the conclusion that recognizing sign language as a distinct language is connected with recognizing the community of deaf people as a distinct culture. Therefore, deaf people consider themselves a cultural minority with its own language. In this way both, hearing people and deaf people, can better deal with their two languages and cultures.

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