Subject:  Re: 10.174, Disc: Sign Language & Cochlear Implants

Martin Haspelmath wrote:

>Now many representatives of Deaf organizations seem to be arguing that
>cochlear implants make sign language superfluous, and CI children
>should not be distracted from the real task of acquiring spoken
>language by being taught sign language.
>Linguists have of course argued for some time that sign languages are
>"real", full languages with all the complexity and subtlety of spoken
>languages, but of course spoken languages are more widely used and in
>this sense more useful. So in this case everybody should be happy if
>DGS, ASL etc. become soon extinct. Normally, linguists deplore the
>loss of a language -- but this case is different, right?
>Or are matters more complex?

They're more complex.  I have witnessed meetings, etc., where leaders
of deaf communities in the US have expressed their opposition to the
idea of cochlear implants for their communities.  Obviously it is a
threat to community coherence and integrity -- but one argument
against it was that it was offered as if deafness is a "defect", and
they deny that it is a defect.  The possibility of cochlear implants
tests the cultural allegiances of members of the deaf *community*.  It
should not be surprising that more than just professional deaf people
feel such an allegiance in view of their enculturation, and are not
eager to cast themselves into a community of hearing people, a
community they ordinarily interact with mainly through translators and
other bi-modals (did I just coin that word?).

[Emotionally, you have to understand, much of the organised deaf
community feels it has come a long way overcoming the past obstacles
to the effect that only a spoken language is a "real" language, that
one must speak in order to behave "appropriately" in "society" (to be
considered fully "human"), and that they were subjected in the past to
being forced to learn how to speak at the expense of being taught how
to sign.  In other words, and this goes back centuries, deaf people
were taught to behave in a way that was CONVENIENT for the dominant
hearing group.  I'm sure this is one of the undercurrents in denying
that deafness is a "defect".]

On the other hand, there are people who are legally deaf, or even
totally deaf, who do not associate with the deaf community.
Generally, the difference is between those who were born deaf (or at
least bnecame deaf before they acquired spoken language) and those who
became deaf later in life, but that is not always the case.  In any
case, I also know (legally) deaf people who have had successful
cochlear implants (they were never part of the deaf community, the
ones I know).  So there is a strong cultural and political component
to the issue, apart from whatever interests linguists may have in the

As for linguists, I see the attempt in the question to put them in a
"moral" quandry.  I'm not biting.  I'll leave it up to the "deaf" to
pursue the issue.


Martin leads to the "moral" dilemma by stating:

>At the social level: Does this mean that sign languages such as ASL
>will soon be endangered languages (in the wealthy countries at least)?

For the present, you have to be personally "wealthy", not just live in a
"wealthy" country, to be able to afford a state of the art cochlear
implant.  Strange as it may seem, some might prefer to buy a Lexus with the

-------------------------------- Message 2 -------------------------------

Date:  Thu, 4 Feb 1999 23:15:02 -0800
From:  Nancy Frishberg 
Subject:  Re: 10.174, Disc: Sign Language & Cochlear Implants

Oh, Martin, things are more complex!

First get hold of a copy of Harlan Lane's book from several years ago
called "The Mask of Benevolence" (Knopf, 1992) in which he indicts a
whole set of attitudes which he characterizes as "audism" on analogy
with "sexism, racism,..." etc., namely the attitude that hearing is
always better than non-hearing and that the values associated with
hearing weigh in as more important than those associated with
deafness.  Audism equates deafness with impairment, brokenness, etc.
The subtitle of the book is "Disabling the Deaf Community".

Lane also looks at the data on cochlear implants (at least what was
known up to then) and in a long and complex set of arguments concludes
that it is unethical to implant children, given that the surgery has
such failure rate, that the costs (both in money and in time/effort on
the part of the child and the family) overshadow everything.  The
surgery is destructive of the physical structure of the cochlea and
other parts of the ear, so should some later therapy be discovered
with less invasive procedure, these CIs would not be candidates for
any other surgical procedure.  The hours of rehabilitation for CIs
rivals the hours of practice for competition sports, with as much
psychological pressure to succeed.  Who wins most in the CI model?
Medical and allied health professionals without a doubt in monetary

Of course for adults (those who were born deaf or those who lost their
hearing) it is a totally different matter: they are making decisions
for themselves.

The fiction being sold to parent of deaf infants and children is that
somehow the CI will make your child non-deaf.  Not true.  Even the
successful CI is a deaf person, where "successful" means the surgery
worked, the device works, and the individual learns to interpret the
signals as speech/noise/meaningful.

Sign languages have always been endangered languages, as far as I can
see.  We have records of the existence of sign languages sporadically
from ancient times, but the contemporary American, (British,
German...)  situation is the longest continuous tradition of sign
languages that we have documented.  There are a few isolates where
there seems to be an equally long tradition, but nothing longer.  More
familiar is the lone deaf individual or couple of families in a
community.  When they die or intermarry or migrate the budding
language disappears.

You ask:

>Should children with cochlear implants (CIs) be deprived of sign
>language input because that would discourage them from using their
>hearing abilities?

This question is actually two questions, but often get conflated and
thus confuse people.  I'd even argue that the advocates of oral(-only)
education intentionally confuse these two issues.  Let me separate the
 a Should children with cochlear implants be deprived of sign language input?
 b Does sign language input discourage the use of speech/audition in deaf

To a) I'd answer no, for all the social reasons.  A mature deaf person
will inevitably want to interact with people of all backgrounds.
There are issues of policy and social adjustment that would make
interaction with deaf people of all backgrounds useful, even
pleasurable.  Notice I don't even argue the case for formal education
in sign language here.  Lane notices (whether in this book or some
other place, I don't recall) that there are examples of deaf
individuals who in adulthood give up their oral-only training to adopt
a sign-only communication preference.  He asks for an example of even
one deaf adult who has given up sign language to adopt an oral-only
stance.  I don't know of any of the latter, but certainly can point
you to several of the former.  In fact the anecdotes I know of are of
CIs who as teens and young adults refuse to use the device, because it
is so effective at making them different looking (subjecting them to
teasing by their peers - those hearing kids that they're supposed to
be integrating seamlessly with), and so marginally effective in its
original purpose.

To b) I ask rhetorically, does the acquisition of English prevent the
acquisition of German or Swahili?  If we as linguists truly believe
that ASL (DGS, etc.) are real languages, then we cannot defend the
"yes" response to the question.  There are lots of motivations in the
culture that make it useful for deaf individuals to learn
spoken/written language(s).  Let's bolster those, but not at the
expense of providing a strong model of a language that's completely
accessible at the earliest ages, right on up through university.

You wrote:
>Now many representatives of Deaf organizations seem to be arguing that
>cochlear implants make sign language superfluous...

We reserve the use of the capitalized term Deaf for the sense
ethnically-deaf, culturally-deaf, as distinct from audiologically deaf
(where we use lower case).  ("We" here are the scholars and advocates
involved in sign language studies, deaf studies, etc.)  Therefore I
doubt that the representatives of Deaf organizations make the argument
as you claim.  Rather I expect that these are the representatives of
deaf organizations (speech and hearing societies, hearing
rehabilitation, social service agencies, etc.).  It is they who put on
the mask of benevolence.

In the 1910's the US National Association of the Deaf made several
films of prominent teachers and civic leaders.  Among the most
well-cited of those films is the one by George Veditz, the first
president of the NAD, in which he argues for the preservation of the
sign language (meaning ASL, which had not yet been so named), noting
that his deaf counterparts in Europe were oppressed by not being able
to use their signing in public, and their signing was in danger of
disappearing.  Sign languages have been under siege before, have gone
underground and survived.  In Germany look to your colleagues at
University of Hamburg for having created much awareness of sign
language in German-speaking geographies, promoting international
cooperation around technical issues (notation, lexicography, etc.),
and developing training opportunities in linguistics and related
fields for Deaf individuals.

Nancy Frishberg  +1 650.654.1948

LINGUIST List: Vol-10-178
From Sun Feb  7 10:35:45 1999
Date: Sat, 6 Feb 1999 12:30:14 -0500
From: LINGUIST Network 
Subject: 10.185, Disc: Sign Language & Cochlear Implants

LINGUIST List:  Vol-10-185. Sat Feb 6 1999. ISSN: 1068-4875.

Subject: 10.185, Disc: Sign Language & Cochlear Implants
Subject:  Re: 10.174, Disc: Sign Language & Cochlear Implants

Date:  Sat, 6 Feb 1999 15:24:44 -0000
From:  "Lorraine Leeson" 
Subject:  Sign Langauge and Cochlear Implants

-------------------------------- Message 1 -------------------------------

Date:  Fri, 5 Feb 1999 16:58:18 EST
Subject:  Re: 10.174, Disc: Sign Language & Cochlear Implants

The question of cochlear implants making sign language obsolete is a "here we
go again" situation.  To my knowledge, current technology allows for a 27
channel input of speech sound.  As linguists we can imagine that this is like
seeing only primary colors without being able to see the subtle hints and
tints that the world of colors offers.  Many children currently implanted are
using sign language (as observed at a Deaf Awareness Day function) because it
is a language open to them without restrictions.  Many of my adult friends
with choclear implants (CI) have discontinued using their very expensive
equipment.  Of the 50 or more people that I have known with CI, two have had
real success.  Both were deafened as teenagers, being fully aware of the
nature and sounds of English and speech.  One had learned sign language and
continued to use it as a preferred language.  (Hers was an early version with
less channels than are available today.)  The other never had the opportunity
for learning sign language, however, even with the CI she still must tell
everyone to please face her, not obstruct her view of their lips in order to
lip read, or she will miss some of the information.

Now, one hundred years ago, the followers of the speech reading and speaking
technique convinced educators world wide to discourage sign language use
because it would stymie the development of speech.  Fortunately for the many
deaf people using sign language today, that proved impossible as well as
ineffective.  Those who have been allowed free access to any language that is
accessible, sign language for example, often have success in learning spoken
language as a second language.  It saddens me to think that after the progress
make in recognizing sign languages as legitimate languages and removing some
of the stigma that has oppressed deaf people over the centuries, new
technology has become an excuse to continue the oppression.  Not every deaf
person will find CI helpful, even the promoters will acknowledge this.  Sign
language is accessible and something that those who are not deaf can learn.
CI have a function, especially for people who have well developed spoken
language skills that lose their hearing.  But as a linguist, I sincerely hope
this does not become an excuse to cause any language used by a speech
community to cease to exist.  Furthermore, I sincerely hope that linguists are
not going to support the promotion of such an act.

-------------------------------- Message 2 -------------------------------

Date:  Sat, 6 Feb 1999 15:24:44 -0000
From:  "Lorraine Leeson" 
Subject:  Sign Langauge and Cochlear Implants

I have been very interested in this discussion, particularly given that the
originator of this piece is European. I am in agreement with the responses
put forward by Nancy Frisberg and 'bwald'. I would add that in many cases,
the choice between spoken language or signed langauge for children who have
received Cochlear Implants does not have to become an either or debate.
Leaving the ethics of implantation aside for a moment, I would like to point
out that in Ireland,  Dr. Laura Vianni, a CI surgeon has gone on record as
saying that as long as a child has language - regardless of modality- it
should be encouraged.

Martin Haspelmath aslo raised a question about the social function of sign
languages and asked whetehr they were on their way to being extinct.
Considering this social element, I think it is fair to say that in Europe,
the status of sign languages is becoming a political issue: the European
Commission funded an EU research project to explore the status of sign
languages (1997: Sign On Europe Report), many European countries have
recognised the status of sign langauges within their legal systems: In
Ireland, we have just included recognition of the right of the deaf child to
access education via Irish Sign LAnguage under the remit of a new Education
Bill. These are moves in the right direction which should begin to allow
politically active Deaf communities and us hearing people who are privileged
enough to work with Deaf people to feel that sign langues are beginning to
find their rightful place on the language stage....Now all we need is
funding to actually document these predominantly undescribed/ underdescribed
langauges! We still have a long way to go, but I think we are now moving in
the right direction.
Lorraine Leeson

LINGUIST List: Vol-10-185

Date:  Tue, 09 Feb 1999 18:08:12 +0000
From:  Martin Haspelmath 
Subject:  Sum: Cochlear implants and sign language

-------------------------------- Message 1 -------------------------------

Date:  Tue, 09 Feb 1999 18:08:12 +0000
From:  Martin Haspelmath 
Subject:  Sum: Cochlear implants and sign language

Last week I posted a query on the effect of cochlear implant (CI)
technology on the use of sign language. My question originated in a
recent article in the German newsmagazine DER SPIEGEL, which portrayed
CI technology as a real alternative to sign language and argued against
the use of sign in deaf education.

I got lots of replies which are almost unanimous in most respects. This
is of course a highly politicized matter, and I was surprised to hear no
opposing voices -- maybe they are not to be found among linguists. The
most important points of the respondents were the following:

-  CI technology is not sufficiently developed at present that one can
say that CI users hear in the same way hearing people -- it seems to be
more a simulation of hearing. Children with CIs need a lot of teaching
and speech therapy in order to acquire spoken language, so the CI does
not allow effortless acquisition of spoken language.

-  There is no evidence whatsoever that knowledge of sign language
interferes with the acquisition of spoken language, and thus there is no
reason to deprive CI children of sign language input. On the contrary,
CI children need a language they feel at ease with to cope with
potential problems of using the CI.

-  CI technology is opposed by many Deaf organizations, because they see
it as another attempt of hearing people to marginalize the Deaf and to
make deafness appear as a defect. It is also noted that the hearing aid
industry benefits from CIs, so there are economic interests here as

-  Deaf organizations generally oppose CIs, especially for young
children who were born deaf.

-  Only the rich can afford CIs, which again means that there is no
great impact on sign language (however, this seems to be true only for
countries with no health care system like the US -- the situation in
most European countries seems to be different)

-  Sign languages are important for our understanding of language, and
they are "worth keeping around".

I found this latter argument problematic -- of course, sign languages
are good for linguists, but that is no reason to "keep them around".
Similarly, we wouldn't tell speakers of Sorbian (an endangered Slavic
language in Germany) to continue speaking Sorbian just because it would
be a pity for linguists if this language became extinct. The people
themselves have to decide.
Several respondents admitted that if CI technology improves
significantly in the coming decades, the situation might change, and
sign language may indeed become endangered at some point -- but everyone
was skeptical.

I was wondering to what extent the situation in the US is perhaps
different from the situation in other countries, e.g. in Europe. In the
US, there are many ethnic subcultures, so there is a positive model for
a separate Deaf culture. Europeans may have greater problems identifying
fully with a self-contained Deaf community, so maybe this means that
people will be more ready to rely on CIs even at this relatively early
point in the development of the technology. But this may be a wrong

The following people responded to my query -- thanks to all of them:
James Fidelholtz, Tracy Mansfield, Frank Bechter, Rachel Lagunoff,
Donald Grushkin, B. Wald, Nancy Frishberg, Lawrence Crowell, Joerg
Keller, Irene Greftegreff, Lakshmi Fjord, Bernard Comrie, Coln Whiteley,
Inge Zwitserlood, Peter Daniels, Andy Kaplan-Myrth, Paul Chapin, Nan
Decker, Harlan Lane, Bernd Rehling, Francois Grosjean, Robin Battison,
Roland Ilenborg, Ed Watts

Some references:

Lane, Harlan.  1984.  When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf.  New
York: Random House.

Lane, Harlan.  1992.  The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf
Community.  New York: Vintage.  (Original hardcover Alfred A. Knopf.)

Lane, Harlan, Hoffmeister, Robert & Bahan, Ben.  1996.  A Journey into
Deaf-World.  San Diego: DawnSignPress.

Padden, Carol & Humphries, Tom.  1988.  Deaf in America: Voices from a
Culture.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard Unviversity Press.

Sacks, Oliver: Seeing voices

Van Cleve, John Vickery & Crouch, Barry A.  1989.  A Place of Their Own:

Creating the Deaf Community in America.  Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet
University Press.

The article in DER SPIEGEL which prompted my posting, together with a
highly critical commentary, can be found at

Martin Haspelmath

Dr. Martin Haspelmath (
Max-Planck-Institut fuer evolutionaere Anthropologie, Inselstr. 22
D-04103 Leipzig (Tel. (MPI) +49-341-9952 307, (priv.) +49-341-980 1616)

Date:  Tue, 9 Feb 99 20:12:52 EST
From: (Katy Beals)
Subject:  re: 10.174, Disc:  Sign Language and Cochlear Implants

-------------------------------- Message 1 -------------------------------

Date:  Tue, 9 Feb 99 20:12:52 EST
From: (Katy Beals)
Subject:  re: 10.174, Disc:  Sign Language and Cochlear Implants

	Unfortunately Frishberg's response rehashes some of the same flawed
arguments one hears time and again from the most vocal opposition to cochlear
implants.  I am thus motivated to point out these flaws in the hopes giving
some of these people reason to be a little more sensitive and nuanced in their
	Let me say first off that I am, on the one hand, a linguist who is
fully aware that ASL is a full-fledged language and that modality per se
doesn't matter for the acquisition of Language (though, importantly, it
DOES matter for the acquisition of literacy, since as yet no one has been able
to devise a workable writing system for signed languages).
	Secondly, I am a parent who made the decision to have her son
undergo cochlear implant surgery, and to raise him bilingually with ASL
and speech, because I believe that two things are unethical:

1. To deprive a deaf child of the language most naturally accessable to him
(in the case of deaf children, a visual language) at an age when he is most
able to pick it up, and of linguistic access to the culture within which he
may end up feeling most comfortable.

2. To deprive a child of a safe procudure that will give him greater access
to the language of his family (substantially increasing his language exposure
within the home) and of his geographic community (improving his social life
within the neighborhood in which he grows up), and improve his educational
and job opportunities, at an age when he is most likely to reap such benefits.

	The arguments put forth by Harlan Lane in his most recent book, (1997)
A Journey into the Deaf-World (co-authored with Ben Bahan and Richard
Hoffmeister), in a chapter entitled "The Hearing Agenda II:  Eradicating the
Deaf-World", repeat and elaborate the arguments Frishberg refers
to.  "Long and complex" as they may be, they contain factual and logical
errors and highly questionable assumptions stated as truisms.  Some time
ago I wrote a several page critique detailing these, and I'm happy to
send it along to anyone who is interested.  In short, though, Lane's
"scientific" argument is highly selective in his discussion of the statistics
of word recognition abilities of post-implantees; his cultural argument is
based on a dubious comparison of hearing parents raising a deaf child to
white parents raising an adopted black child, on dubious and racist
assumptions about innate cultural characteristics, and on a failure to show
any distinction in cultural implications between coclear implants and
hearing aids; and his discussion of the practical issues surrounding the
raising of deaf children and being deaf in a hearing world conflates the
highly divergent circumstances of deaf children raised by hearing parents,
on the one hand, and deaf children raised by deaf parents, on the other.
	Like Frishberg, Lane tries to buttress his arguments by invoking the
supposed "bad guys"/straw men: the medical professionals, cynically
distorting the picture so they can make money off of the naive and hopeful
parents; and the "audists", who say that it is bad to be deaf, that deaf
people are broken, that they should be made to conform to the dominant culture,
who slap their deaf children when they sign instead of speaking, etc, etc...
One hears about these bad guys so often in this debate that it's easy to
forget to question who they are, exactly, and whether they really behave this
badly.  I have yet to encounter an audist who fits Frishberg's description,
though I've met plenty of people who are concerned about deaf children's
education and job opportunities and the difficulty that hearing parents have
communicating with them.
	As for the medical professionals, please note that cochlear implant
surgery is not the big money-making operation that Frishberg suggests: implant
centers typically need to raise money from charitable donations to cover costs
(and insurance companies foot the bill for most of what patients are charged,
making cochlear implant surgery similar to hearing aids in cost to the
patient).  Our son's surgeon could make much more money doing other kinds of
ear surgery if he wanted to.  Why are doctors in the  business of performing CI
 surgery, if not for the money, and why do charitable individuals and
organizations support them?  Our son's surgeon cites the average 3rd or 4th
grade reading level of deaf high school graduates.
(As I indicated above, becoming literate, particularly in a phonologically
based writing system such as ours, is much more difficult for someone
who lacks access to the spoken language on which the writing system is based:
just imagine what "sounding out" words, or remembering spelling patterns
would be like, or, more fundamentally, what it's like to learn a language
primarily through its graphical symbols).

	Nor do the implant centers tell parents that the surgery will "make
their children hearing".  In fact, if Frishberg were to listen in on
a pre-surgery evaluation session or to read the literature that one must
sign before surgery occurs, she would see that the centers go out of their
way not to raise expectations.  Nothing is guaranteed; one is told that
the implant may help your child with spoken language, and one is given
names and phone numbers of parents with implanted children in order to
get first-hand accounts.
	Some of the supposed good guys, on the other hand, may not
have the purest of motives.  I'm told that Harlan Lane charges hefty
honoraria for his inflamatory speeches on cochlear implants, speeches in
which, among other things, he accuses medical professionals of trying to
commit cultural genocide.

	In addition to Frishberg's simplistic characterization of the good and
bad players, she fails to distinguish different circumstances of childhood
implantation.  In general, the later the implantation occurs, the worse
the outcome is, as neurons atrophe and brain plasticity declines.  There
is, thus, a big difference between a prelingually deaf child who gets the
implant before age 2, as my son did, and one who gets the implant after, say,
age 10.  Indeed, I would argue against implanting anyone this old, as do many
implant centers.  The late implantee will have much more trouble learning to
extract meaning and beauty from the sound signals he receives, will need many
hours of auditory and speech therapy, and is quite likely to eventually stop
using the implant and to resent its ever having been implanted in him.  One
finds lots of these people at Gallaudet (I've corresponded with some of them),
and if that's Fishberb's only source of anecdotes about implant outcomes, we
have an explanation for her distorted impression.
	On the other hand there is the (prelingually deaf) child who gets
the implant before age 2.  Unlike the late implantee, and, indeed, unlike
the typical unimplated deaf child, this child does not undergo hours of tedious
therapy every week, and, to the extent that there is any deliberate "therapy",
it is done in the form of play that the child enjoys.  Few two-year-olds
would put up with anything else!  And after the first year or two, unlike
with other deaf children, there is typically little perceived need for
auditory and speech therapy.  For someone unfamiliar with the cochlear
implant centers and their patients, these successful implantees are much more
difficult to find then the unsucessful ones because they tend to be much
more integrated into the larger society, and not, for the most part,
attending schools specifically for deaf children.  Yet they are out
there, and among young implantees, far outnumber their unsucessfully-implanted
	A few words about Jonah, our deaf son.  He was implanted at age
1 1/2, the earliest age when cochlear implant surgery is currently allowed
in this country, and is now one year, one month post implant.  He is
NOT one of those implant whiz kids one might hear about on TV magazine
shows; in fact, though a bright child, he has consistently been somewhat below
average in his reception of spoken language, and is not yet talking, and we
have some reason to believe that he may have social/communicative issues
unrelated to his deafness.  On the other hand, he understands, without
lipreading, most of the key words he hears frequently and that are most
important to him (at last count, over 70), he makes a variety of speech
sounds and has been babbling for the last 6 months, he enjoys music and can
distinguish different environmental sounds even in cacophonous environments,
and he likes his implant so much that he doesn't want it off at night and is
upset when the battery runs out, even though he is not linguistically
dependent on it when at home with us, where we all sign.  His sign language
has followed a relatively normal course, though it, too, is somewhat
below average for his age (at least compared to deaf children whose
parents sign at least as well and as much as we do).  For us, the implant
has been a way for us not only to improve his access to language and social
activities, but also to draw him out of the private world he so often inhabits,
and we're very happy with his progress.
	Finally let me correct one of Frishberg's medical claims.  She says
that implant surgery destroys the "physical structure of the cochlea and other
parts of the ear", so that "these CIs would not be candidates for any other
surgical procedure".  The only part of the ear vulnerable to implant surgery
are the hair cells (scillia) of the cochlea (which in the deaf ear are already
dysfunctional) and not its physical structure.  Since only one ear is
implanted, the other ear is available for whatever new procedure might come
along.  And researchers are optimistic about developing the technology to
regenerate those damaged hair cells-- in fact, this is currently thought to
be the most promising new area in hearing-enhancing technology.

Katharine Beals, PhD
Computational Linguist

LINGUIST List: Vol-10-241
Date:  Sat, 13 Feb 1999 04:01:12 -0500
From:  Catherine Smith 
Subject:  Sign Language & Cochlear Implants

In response to Clodagh Lynam's question about written sign language,
there is a written form which has been implemented with a few sign
languages.  For more information, see: