International Spotlight: Supporting the Languages of the Home and the Heart for DHH Children

The issue

Around the world, a majority of deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) children live in multilingual societies. Being able to communicate in more than one language is essential for participation and inclusion in schools and communities, and is reported by many parents as a “desired outcome” for their DHH child. However, many children do not receive the appropriate support to learn the languages that are spoken in their homes, at schools, and within communities.

Listening Together is a nonprofit organization that empowers parents, trains professionals, and engages communities around the world so they can support DHH children to achieve their personal best. Over the last two years, Listening Together has been providing tele-intervention and professional development through e-learning to families and practitioners predominantly from India. It appears that even when the socio-cultural norm and expectation is fluency in multiple languages, many families of DHH children have been advised to use only one language with their DHH child. Consequently, many families are choosing the language necessary for school and future success – English, which might not be the language of the home and heart. The loss of acquiring one’s home language(s), could negatively impact the child’s identity, relationships, quality of life, and cultural assimilation that is rooted within the home language.

What we know

Children learn language within relevant contexts, through repeated, meaningful interactions with trusted caregivers who are fluent language models. In other words, children learn language when living life! Research on bilingual development demonstrates that typically developing young children can learn more than one language, either simultaneously or sequentially, through meaningful exposure in daily routines, especially if exposure to the second language happens during the sensitive period for language learning. Additionally, even though developmental milestones of bilingual learners might appear to be “delayed” compared to monolingual learners, they not only catch up but also demonstrate certain cognitive advantages of being bilingual or multilingual.

Over the last few years, more DHH children, using hearing technology, and receiving intervention for developing listening and spoken language are demonstrating bilingual and even multilingual proficiency, but it is not yet the “norm” or even a possibility for all children around the world. A contributing factor is the global shortage of knowledgeable and skilled professionals, especially bilingual practitioners, who can support families in helping DHH children learn the language or languages of the home and heart. This issue is further compounded as intervention and education of DHH children living in multilingual countries such as India continues to be informed and influenced by knowledge and practices generated in English-speaking countries that are primarily monolingual. Listening Together is addressing this immediate need for greater awareness and evidence-based practices related to developing more than one spoken language. Families and professionals are being coached to actively engage in creating, implementing, and reflecting on interventions that are aligned with the language of the home and the community. Over the last several months, families and professionals are reporting a positive shift in attitudes towards learning the language of the home. Families are also sharing how their children are building relationships with friends and extended family through the language of the home and heart.

What we don’t know and implications

While progress is being made towards supporting bilingual development, particularly two spoken languages for DHH children, there are several areas of knowledge and intervention that need further attention.
  • Developmental milestones for monolingual learners of languages other than English have not been standardized. Additionally, how these milestones might differ in bilingual learners has not yet been established. Articulation, vocabulary, and language assessments, criterion-referenced and norm-referenced, that have been standardized on populations of bilingual children are also not widely available. This further complicates evaluation, progress monitoring, and goal setting for bilingual intervention.
  • It is expected that strategies for simultaneous or sequential bilingual development such as one-person-one-language, or one-place-one-language, or associating languages with daily routines, could be effective in multilingual societies but have not been studied specifically.
  • Families and professionals might have varying degrees of proficiency in the languages they speak. The impact of learning to speak from less than proficient language models on bilingual development in DHH children is not fully understood. Further research in this issue could generate specific guidelines for practitioners providing bilingual or multilingual intervention.

Posted on Jan. 17, 2020 by
Uma Soman
Co-Founder & Director of Professional Development
Listening Together

Ahladhini Rao Dugar
Co-Founder & Director of Parent Empowerment
Listening Together


Further reading