Bilingualism for Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing (and Their Families)

The issue


Families of children who are deaf or hard of hearing (DHH) face many choices about what communication modality to use with their DHH child and within their family. Some families would like their children to use both spoken language and sign language; however, research suggests that it is difficult for hearing adults to become proficient signers, making teaching a sign language to their child challenging. For any child to acquire a language, it is important for them to learn it from a proficient user through early, natural interactions. In addition, for DHH children who have hearing parents, language learning is not an automatic process. Many skills need to be taught explicitly, and this requires time and linguistic competence on the part of the family.

What we know

We know that human interaction is the best method for learning language. While video or audio media can reinforce acquisition of a second language and provide entertainment, research shows that children are more successful at learning a language when they interact with people using that language. One successful path to bilingualism for typically hearing children is when one parent or a close family member consistently uses one language and one parent or family member consistently uses another language with the child (specific speakers are associated with specific languages). This is referred to as the “one parent-one language” approach.

Research shows that children who are deaf and receive a cochlear implant early can learn multiple spoken languages; there are a variety of routes to achieving this outcome. In general, attention and focused intervention need to be given to both languages at home, at school, and in the community. Additionally, research shows that deaf children who receive cochlear implants early and whose parents are Deaf can achieve age-appropriate signed and spoken language skills when they receive specialized intervention. Research also shows that deaf children who learn to sign as a first language may acquire print literacy. Children whose parents are Deaf and use sign language are more likely to be successful in the latter, at least early on, probably due to early exposure to a first language via fluent users. We also know that hearing children who have Deaf parents (CODAs) and who sign achieve bilingualism in spoken and sign languages.

For DHH children with hearing parents, achieving bilingualism in American Sign Language and spoken English, for example, is complicated. First, mastering spoken language is challenging for children who are DHH and does not necessarily happen through environmental exposure—even with early amplification. DHH children do not easily master spoken vocabulary, word order, and morphology (word endings that signal tense, number, possession, etc.). Social cognition skills also are likely to be delayed in children who are deaf and who have hearing parents. Research shows that important components in the acquisition of spoken language and social competency in deaf children include 1) optimal auditory access to speech, 2) intervention designed to reinforce the use of sound patterns, vocabulary, language forms, and sentence structures, and 3) thoughtful exposure to and inclusion in conversation.

What we don’t know

We know relatively little about spoken-signed bilingualism in children who are DHH. Much of the research has focused on children who are deaf acquiring sign language as a first language and learning to read later. This is referred to as a “bilingual-bimodal” approach. Less well-understood are the mechanisms by which children who are deaf acquire communication proficiency in a signed language and a spoken language either concurrently or sequentially.


One possible path to sign-spoken bilingualism for a child who is DHH might be for both parents to use sign language and speech (not simultaneously) with each other so that conversational skills are modeled in both languages, but for one parent to mainly use spoken language and one parent to mainly sign with their child. Another approach might be for both parents to use either sign language or spoken language primarily in the home and provide ample opportunities for use and practice of the second language outside the home (at school, in therapy, in a community group). There will be natural opportunities during the day for either parent to use only sign or speech (when the child wakes up and before he is wearing the technology, in the bathtub, in the car, when hands are occupied, during therapy, etc.). Research shows that typically hearing children can attain bilingualism through interactions with adults who use a combination of two languages or “code-switch,” so flexibility is important.

Posted on Jan 11, 2016 by
Kimberly Peters
Western Washington University
Kimberly.peters {at}

Further reading