First language learning in a sign bilingual program: an Australian study

Greg Leigh, Trevor Johnston

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Deaf children with a sign language as a first language (L1) have been reported as having an advantage in acquiring or mastering the majority community spoken language (effectively a second language—an L2) over deaf children who do not have a normal pattern of L1 acquisition in either a signed or a spoken language (Strong, 1988; Mayberry & Eichen, 1991). The advantage in the L2 of deaf children who have a signed language as an L1 is usually measured in the L2 as a written language, but it can also manifest itself in L2 oral skills. Bilingual educational programs for deaf children (hereafter "sign bilingual programs") seek to exploit the L1 signing skills of deaf children in the learning of an L2, a majority community spoken language (primarily, but not exclusively, in its written form). In Australia, the L1 is Auslan (Australian Sign Language) and the L2 is English. In brief, sign bilingualism assumes that L1 competency in a natural sign language (NSL) will be positively associated with degree of proficiency in an L2 that is a majority community spoken language. To be able to claim that sign bilingualism is achieving these expected outcomes, evidence must be presented in at least two important areas. First, evidence needs to be provided that deaf children within a sign bilingual program actually have competence in the use of a natural sign language. In particular, this means showing that deaf children with hearing parents are learning an NSL effectively, and early—ostensibly, just as deaf children with deaf parents do. Second, evidence needs to be provided that, as children progress through the grade levels, those with better skills in the L1 also prove to have better skills in the L2. We have been undertaking a long-term study to examine outcomes in an Australian sign bilingual program in order to seek such evidence on both fronts. This brief paper outlines the project and considers some data currently to hand on the first of these two issues. The program The sign bilingual program that is being investigated includes a pre-school as well as a K-10 school-age program and caters for approximately 45 children across that age range. It has been operational for approximately ten years. At this stage, data is available for 36 children who have been enrolled in the program consistently over two of the years so far under examination. The study is intended to be longitudinal and more students and more data will become available in the time ahead.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages5
Specialist publicationNTID Research Bulletin
PublisherCenter for Research, Teaching and Learning
Publication statusPublished - 2004
Externally publishedYes

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  • deaf
  • hard of hearing

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