By Joy Santos
The Bilingual-Bicultural educational approach for Deaf children is one where the child uses American Sign Language (ASL) as their first language, and English as their second. This is also known as the Bi-Bi approach, and it is often mentioned around the Deaf Community. While different approaches work for different children, this has been our family’s preferred approach for my daughter, Teanna, in both her home and school life. I would like to take this opportunity to share some of the reasons why I have found it to be of benefit to us.
Teanna was born deaf, and received a cochlear implant at age two. She is now in Grade 4 at the Provincial School for the Deaf, where she receives instruction primarily in ASL. Advantages of the Bi-Bi approach with regards to Deaf education are that children receive instruction in a language that is highly accessible to them, they are immersed in their culture, and are surrounded by native users of ASL who can also serve as positive role models. Teanna participates in classes such as Deaf Culture studies, and I feel that this helps her learn and understand more about her identity as a Deaf person. This learning environment also encourages students to promote self-advocacy, and learn about prominent moments in Deaf History. I find this particular approach to her learning to be very empowering.
The curriculum has been superb with accommodating each student’s individual needs, and I feel that personal goals unique to each family can be discussed in depth during one-on-one Individual Education Plan* meetings during the school year. During these sessions, teachers and families collaborate with common educational objectives, and it is where I typically express my desire for Teanna to obtain fluency in both spoken and written English.
Infant and toddler’s brains are primed to learn and absorb languages, whether it is in visual or spoken form. As an Early Childhood Educator, I have learned about, and witnessed firsthand, a multitude of advantages to raising a bilingual child. These can include:
- Cognitive Benefits
- Bilingual brains seem to be able to multitask more efficiently.
- The skill of reading seems to be acquired easier by bilingual children.
- The concept of abstract thinking and problem solving seem to be understood more clearly by bilingual children.
- Cultural Benefits
- Bicultural children have an awareness that various cultures and languages exist. This could potentially encourage socialization with peers who may or may not speak their language, and also promote tolerance.
- Being aware of other languages and cultures, and feeling comfortable in different environments is an asset in our increasingly globalized world.
Generally speaking, our choice to incorporate the use of both ASL and spoken/written English into our daily lives certainly reaps multiple benefits, as both have been useful in various settings.
With ASL, it makes communicating from a distance, in noisy environments, or through physical barriers, such as a window, so much easier. I am also rest-assured that Teanna and I will be able to communicate even if her Cochlear Implant gets misplaced, runs out of batteries, or breaks down – or if it simply needs to be left at home when we go to the lake or plan on riding roller coasters at a theme park.
With English, she is able to confidently communicate with people who are not fluent in ASL, and can even teach ASL to them! A fun fact about Teanna is that she aspires to someday become a singer and songwriter. Her knowledge of English allows her to write songs, and it is very endearing for me to see her independence in taking action to pursue a dream of hers.
Most importantly, the Bi-Bi approach provides her with the freedom to choose which works best for her in any given moment. There are days where she has chosen not to use her cochlear implant, and tells me “Mom, I want a quiet day today, please sign if you want to talk to me.” There have also been days where she will say “Mom, let’s chat so I can practice English,” and she will take the initiative to ask me about English grammar and pronunciation of some words. Her ability to code-switch has always amazed me!
One of the most crucial points that I have learned thus far in my role as a parent of a Deaf child, is the importance of providing our children with options for themselves. With regards to language, I remember constantly hearing “facts” or “statistics” that viewed the Bi-Bi approach as detrimental to successful language development, and it was therefore discouraged. On the contrary, though, there has also been a lot of research done to prove that children’s brains are like sponges, and they will take in and utilize what is made available to them.
While there is no one “right way” to teach all deaf and hard of hearing children, I see proof of the strengths of the Bi-Bi approach in my daughter. This extends beyond her proficiency in both ASL and English, to expanding her interest to learn about the world around her. She is keen to learn about different cultures, and wants to travel and learn more languages (both oral and sign) from other countries. Her disposition to take the world by storm is inspiring!
* When a deaf/hard of hearing child transitions to school, the plan developed and followed through by their team progresses from an Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) to an Individual Education Plan (IEP).