Plurilingualism and (In)competence in Deaf Education

This is a re-post of a blog post originally written for Channel View Publications and Multilingual Matters.

This month, Multilingual Matters published Critical Perspectives on Plurilingualism in Deaf Education edited by Kristin Snoddon and Joanne C. Weber. In this post, the editors explain the inspiration behind the book.

This book was inspired by what we see as an unbalanced revitalization of sign languages. Around the world, national sign languages are increasingly popular as second language courses in schools and postsecondary contexts. At the same time, their learning and use by deaf children is in decline in countries that previously afforded the congregation of deaf children in some form, whether in special education settings or (more rarely) bilingual education classrooms and schools where a national sign language and written/spoken language are languages of instruction.

In many global North countries, this decline in deaf children’s learning of sign language is due to their medicalization in a framework of hearing screening and early intervention and policies that restrict families’ learning of sign language when a child receives a cochlear implant. In both the North and South, however, the way that governments and policy-makers have interpreted the tenets of inclusive education has meant the dismantling of deaf schools and other settings where deaf children can gather. Deaf people’s gathering inside and outside the classroom is critical to the transmission and maintenance of sign languages, even when teachers in these settings do not use a national sign language. Without sign languages, deaf children are at risk of language deprivation, which leads to poor educational and health outcomes.

However, there are new directions in plurilingual education for deaf children and youth in terms of classroom pedagogy, programming, and curricula. This research is driven by deaf ontologies, or what deaf people do with language. There is a need to further explore what concepts such as plurilingualism and translanguaging mean in the context of deaf people’s self-determination and empowerment.

Hannah Arendt (1961) wrote that in spite of efforts to build a new world through the education of children, children are introduced to a pre-existing world that has been constructed by those who came before us. Our book chronicles the history of education for deaf children and the suppression of sign languages in several contexts, including the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, and Canada.

As this book went to press, both of us learned that the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Saskatchewan, where we respectively live, are rolling out American Sign Language (ASL) curricula and classes for hearing high school students. At the same time, deaf children and youth across Canada are unlikely to receive broad support for learning in ASL via early intervention systems or schools. It is in these contexts and others that new directions in plurilingual sign language-medium education are needed, driven by the agency of signing deaf people.

For more information about this book please see the Multilingual Matters website.