The Cognitive Imperative of American Sign Language
As a cultural group, Deaf Americans present a thriving and distinct example of language in action. Many of the traditions of Deaf culture—including storytelling, word games, etc.—are celebrations of American Sign Language (ASL). But contemporary Deaf Americans face myriad issues, including the preservation of sign language as it relates to the child’s upbringing and education in particular. Because a child with a profound hearing loss is not able to access the language that pervades their environment, it is crucial that these children are given ASL as soon as possible. Using the framework of social neuroscience, it is possible to consider the consequences of a linguistic delay due to the absence of ASL in the child’s environment.
The mind of an infant and toddler is a sponge to language. Whether or not the child is able to speak, their brain is rehearsing and affirming the linguistic structures they hear, and the period of baby talk—called “babbling”—is a crucial time of experimentation with sound. During this time, the child will babble while in social situations in order to see which phonological structures receive positive responses from their parents—i.e. which combinations of sounds elicit responses. If a child cannot hear the sounds that their language offers, the child does not have the opportunity to babble. A child with significant hearing loss will still make sounds in infancy, but will quickly cease due to the lack of response and the fact that they cannot hear the sounds they are making and so cannot affirm them for themselves.
Babbling is just one step in the complex, lifelong process of language acquisition. Though one continues to advance in the fluency of their language until very old age, the first five years of life are the most crucial to language acquisition—a period of life which is often referred to as the “critical window.” During this short window of time, a child absorbs eighty percent of the language that they will use throughout their lives. Being denied access to any language during this period of life can cause massive delays not only in language acquisition but also in social comprehension, behavioral development, and the cultivation of critical neural pathways. Linguistic proficiency, as studies have shown, is not only a means of interpersonal communication, but also an essential component of cognitive function with strong influence on perception, memory, and the ability to retain information.
It is for these reasons that the use of ASL in a child’s environment is crucial to their cognitive, social, and behavioral development. Children glean ASL precisely the way that their hearing counterparts absorb spoken language, showing no cognitive lack in children who learned ASL instead of English as infants. ASL has nudged the scales closer to equality in terms of social mobility and cultural identity—in addition to the cognitive benefits of linguistic...