Is SimCom Evil?

marscharkThe issue

Communication between hearing individuals and others who are deaf or hard of hearing (DHH) frequently involves use of the use of sign and speech together. This is referred to as simultaneous communication (or SimCom) in the United States and sign-supported speech in other countries. The difference in terminology generally refers to the fact that, in some countries, when the two are used simultaneously, signing is seen as secondary to speech, whereas in the United States, the signing is seen to be primary, or the two are assumed to have equal roles. Despite its frequent use at home, in school, and in social settings, the use of SimCom in the general education setting is sometimes controversial.

What we know

Because spoken languages like English and natural signed languages like American Sign Language (ASL) have different grammars, they cannot really be produced simultaneously. SimCom involving English and ASL, for example, uses ASL signs but in English word order, often together with characteristics of ASL such as pointing (indexing) and various time indicators. SimCom therefore is not language, even if it could be argued that what is being produced in this example is English.

A couple of early studies of SimCom found that when hearing parents and teachers were using it with children, they frequently omitted from their signing a significant amount of what was in their speech. On the other hand, research conducted since the 1970s involving middle school, high school, and college students has demonstrated that SimCom works as well as any other form of communication for learning in the classroom. At least in the hands of skilled users, SimCom therefore can be an effective educational tool, especially when some students use sign language (like ASL) and others use spoken language (like English). Because of the redundancy of speech and sign in SimCom, it also has been found helpful for cochlear implant users, improving comprehension in noisy settings (like classrooms) and when material is unfamiliar or difficult. Nevertheless, some people continue to object to its use.

Although the two are often used interchangeably, simultaneous communication is not the same as total communication. Total communication is an educational philosophy referring to the use of all potentially available sources of communication, including sign, speech, and amplification. Total communication thus supports using spoken language, sign language, or both with DHH children—whatever best allows them to communicate in educational and social settings. At the same time, the total communication approach emphasizes the importance of sign language for most DHH children, even if they will use spoken language at some point, urging that the entire family to learn to sign.

What we don’t know

SimCom normally would not be recommended as a first language for DHH children (after all, it is not a language). Nevertheless, it is something that they see often and is familiar to most of them. Surprisingly, there does not appear to be any research into the long-term effects of DHH children’s exposure to SimCom with regard to their language development. This may be partly a consequence of the sensitivity of the issue for some deaf individuals, but it is most likely because parents and teachers are aware of DHH children’s needs for a natural first language. Fluency in natural languages like ASL or English requires effective exposure to them and considerable instruction if they are not learned naturally at home. Indeed, the most common argument against SimCom is the claim that it will not support DHH children becoming fluent in either ASL or English.

Whether SimCom interferes with learning ASL or English or actually supports learning one or both remains unclear. Similarly, although English-based signing frequently is advocated as a way to help DHH children “bridge” from sign language to print literacy, the case has not yet been made. Thus far, such sign systems generally have not led to better literacy skills among DHH learners than sign language, which has the advantage of “holding together” by virtue of having developed naturally over time.

Implications

If the implications of SimCom use for language development and literacy among DHH children are unclear, its benefits in general education settings for learners with and without hearing aids and with and without cochlear implants have been well demonstrated. SimCom is useful in situations where individuals differ in their primary language, much as deaf individuals use International Sign when meeting people from other countries. Sensitivity associated with its use in educational settings is a theoretical and socio-cultural issue, not a practical one.

 

Posted on Jan 5, 2017 by
Marc Marschark
Center for Education Research Partnerships
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
marc.marschark {at} rit.edu

 

Further reading