Many families want their children who are deaf or hard of hearing to use and understand more than one spoken language. In many communities this is important for communicating effectively at home, at school, and in the community. Parents wonder whether their children can learn more than one language, and which language to focus on, and when to start teaching these languages.
We have seen that with hearing aids or cochlear implants that help the child hear all the speech sounds of a language, lots of exposure and practice with conversations in daily routines, and support from a knowledgeable team of professionals, children who are deaf or hard of hearing can learn to speak multiple languages. We see that language is learned while living life! So we propose using an A-E-I-O-U approach to learning multiple languages – Access, Exposure, Interaction, Opportunity, and YOU.
A is for Access to sounds of the language
It is important that children can hear all the sounds of their language so they can learn to detect, discriminate, identify the sounds, and then understand the meaning of the words that differ by just one sound. For example, a child who does not hear the difference between /p/ and /b/ will have difficulty understanding if someone is saying pear or bear.
For children learning two languages, where one language has sounds not present in the other language, hearing and discriminating those sounds is very important. In Marathi, hearing the difference between क, ख, ग, घ, (only क /k/ and ग /g/ are present in English) allows a child to identify whether someone is talking about कार (car), खार (squirrel), गार (cold), or घार (large hawk-like bird).
Access to all the sounds of the languages a child learns can be achieved through optimum programming of the hearing aids or cochlear implants to provide maximum benefit. In addition to doing a daily listening check, parents and professionals should check functional benefit from hearing technology from time to time.
E is for Exposure to Fluent Language Models
Children learn to speak from the people that speak with them. If a family member speaks in a natural manner, in phrases, sentences, expressions, then the child will learn to speak in the same manner. This can happen when the speaker is comfortable and fluent in the language. If the speaker is not fluent or uncomfortable, what they say might not be as complete or complex or diverse as it could be.
For example, a mother who is fluent in Hindi but not in English, might feel limited in her lunch time conversation with her son if she is required to speak in English. The conversation might go something like this:
come, eat rice, dal. mummy make it. I eat, you eat.
But if the mother was allowed to speak in her language of the heart, the language that she is fluent in, it might have gone something like this:
चलो बेटा खाना खाने, देखो आज मम्मीने आपकी मनपसंद दाल बानायी है। (खाना पारोसते हुए) दाल और चावल – आपके लिये, दाल और चावल – मेरे लिये! मै भी खाना खाऊँगी आपके साथ। [translation: come on dear, time to eat. look, mummy has made your favorite dal. (serving the food) dal and rice for you, dal and rice for me. I will eat lunch with you.]
This example shows what the child is missing when he does not get input from a fluent language model. Not only is there limited language input, but the input in English is short, telegraphic, whereas the input in Hindi is more natural and complete. Exposure to fluent language models can only help a child learn language.
I is for Interaction in Meaningful Contexts
Children learn words, phrases, and sentences in the moment, in a meaningful context, if and when they have social value. Learning the names of food items in the home language through a daily routine when eating food, or when getting ready to serve and eat food is meaningful. The child learns the word रोटी (roti/flatbread), सब्जी (sabji/vegetable), दाल (dal/lentil soup), चावल (chawal/rice) while making, serving, and eating it. The child can also play “kitchen” and practice this language in their play. It is natural, it is within a meaningful context. Through repeated interactions in a variety of contexts the child realizes that yellow dal is दाल , green dal is also दाल ; it is the same word at grandma’s house and at the restaurant. When that happens the child is likely to understand, use, and generalize these words in daily life.
But if a child has to rush through the meal, and then sit down to “do therapy” and look at flash cards of the same food items – रोटी , सब्जी, दाल, चावल, learning them might take much longer, understanding and using them in real life will be difficult. Learning through interaction within meaningful context can help language learning.
O is for Opportunity to Use the Languages
A child or even an adult will learn a new language when it has social value. “What do I get from learning this language?”
It is important to create opportunities to use the languages that the child is expected to learn. Opportunities that are natural, in daily routines, in authentic settings. It could be as simple as using the home language when visiting relatives, or encouraging the child to share something in a specific language. Or it could be an event out in the community – a cultural ceremony, where the child uses a specific phrase (तिळ गुळ घ्य़ा गोड गोड बोला), or a community event where the child says “trick or treat”. Be intentional about this, plan ahead, think what the child will need to know to successfully use a few words, phrases, or sentences in the specific language.
U is for YOU Valuing the Language Learning
Finally, the most important aspect is YOU! You reinforcing and celebrating the child’s language learning will encourage the child to learn more, speak more, share more. As professionals, helping families see the progress their child is making, the progress they are helping the child make is important. Families and caregivers need to experience that the more they put in to this process, the more they are likely to get out.
These A-E-I-O-Us of bilingualism, can work for two, three, four languages. While there isn’t a lot of research on this, they would probably work for sign and spoken language being learned together or later in life.
Share in the comments your thoughts or questions. If you apply any of the approaches share with us how it went.