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Social Theory and Language Acquisition for Early Years Deaf Persons

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Young People
Wordcount: 2734 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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The methodology used in this research paper was Qualitative research. Data was collected through various academic sites such as California State University Northridge Oviatt Library One Search. Some other resources were through the Journals of Deaf Studies and Education through the Oxford Academic website. Statistical data was collected through research on various sites as listed in the references. By reading and analyzing these articles, peer reviews and statistics I was able to find articles related to the subject and conduct a research paper.

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According to the Statistics Portal there are 22.2 undergraduates in the United States as of the 2017/18 school year. How many of those students are Deaf? Research is limited but according to an outdated National Center of Education Statistics done back in 1994, there are more than 20,000 Deaf students enrolled in undergraduate programs in the United States.  Only one in four deaf students will graduate college (Lang 2002). There are a variety of reasons for these statistics. Starting from birth a majority of the Deaf will go through challenges due to guidelines set predominantly by their hearing counterparts such challenges include language acquisition, social theory of mind, in which feeds into social stigma of being Deaf as well as social learning that present challenges for the Deaf to be fully prepared to enter and graduate a college or University. There are different attributes that play out in a person’s early life that contribute to the success of their later life. In this paper we will look at how social theory and language acquisition and what role this plays in the Deaf persons early years then will look at the challenges they face to get to College/University and graduate.

Over 90% of children who are deaf are born to parents with hearing in the normal range (Mitchell and Karchmer 2004).  Many of these hearing parents have limited or no exposure to the Deaf community or even what it really means for their child who is deaf. When announced that their child is deaf, the medical community relates the news in a fashion that this is a “horrible thing” and that the child will not have a “normal” life. Most of the medical community looks at Deafness as something to fix and rehabilitate. With this mind frame, they are often encouraged to raise the child to be an oral child with oral language. So sadly, this means that most deaf children born to hearing parents that do use American Sign Language (ASL) or any other signed language as means to communicate with their deaf child, the child does not get exposed to language acquisition until they of preschool age, even then it is usually to acquire an oral language through speech therapy. Due to this the deaf child is behind the hearing child in that the hearing child has been exposed to language since birth. Even though they do not know the meaning of a word or how to speak it, they hear sounds and read cues and moods by how things are portrayed and presented. Parents usually talk to their child well before they understand what is being said for example: “Hi baby, Mommy loves you” “Don’t you look pretty today”, or singing nursery songs and stories, or if older and going to put an item in their mouth, the “NO”, you can tell the differences in cues, ones is loving and calm the other is short and firm. The deaf child that is raised by hearing parents that are not teaching ASL right away do not get these same language exposures as a hearing child. Studies have shown that even when hearing parents do start signing with their deaf children they use significantly fewer mental state words than hearing children of hearing parents, and the frequency of mothers’ mental state words directly correlates with children Theory of Mind (Westby 2014).

Theory of Mind is a person’s theory of what other people might be thinking (Berger 2014). Theory of Mind can be applied to many aspects of our social learning such as 1. Cognitive in which is the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own. 2. Affective Theory of Mind in which one recognizes its own emotions and the emotions of others and the ability to respond empathically to others. 3. Interpersonal Theory of Mind in which one is able to recognize the thoughts/feelings and emotions of others and make inferences about others based on what knowledge they have about others. 4. Intrapersonal Theory of Mind in which one can reflect upon their own thoughts and feelings and use them as a guideline to monitor one’s behavior (Westby 2014).  All these different aspects of Theory of mind plays a role in the Deaf child’s thought process and are vital for recognizing and interpreting emotions, making appropriate inferences in social interactions and academic contexts, regulating one’s own learning and emotions, and evaluating one’s knowledge (Westby 2014) This is vital in the beginning of our education for it sets the foundations for the learning needed to acquire in order to be successful starting from birth all the way to college.

One of the first classic developmental milestone for interpersonal cognitive Theory of Mind is the ability to attribute false cognitive belief, that is, to recognize that others can have beliefs about the world that are not true and that they act on these false beliefs (Westby 2014). An example of a false belief is lets say mom lost her keys, her two year child knows (In her mind) the keys are always in the key basket because he/she saw mom put the keys in the key basket before however this time mom put them somewhere else and is looking everywhere for her keys, the child can not comprehend why mom is looking anywhere other than the key basket because in her/his mind they can not be anywhere else other than the key basket. The child firmly believes the keys can only be in one place not somewhere else therefore cannot comprehend any other result other than the keys being in the key basket. While there is much debate on the age that the child actually passes the false-belief state, most evidence points to being around age five when the child is able to pass a false-belief test (Hansen 2010). Numerous studies have documented cognitive Theory of Mind delays in children who are Deaf/Hard of Hearing and found that those who are Deaf/Hard of Hearing raised by hearing parents did not do as well as the Deaf children raised by Deaf parents. The results actually showed that Deaf raised by Deaf parents perform markedly better on Theory of Mind test than both those who were raised orally by hearing parents. The children who are deaf raised by hearing parents that sign to them did better than those who were raised to in an oral language. (Westby 2014). This data could be interpreted in that the Deaf children who have access to complete language exposure are better equipped and have the same opportunities for educational success as a hearing child raised by a hearing parent in their native language.

 Hearing children and deaf children are the same in many ways. They both physically look the same, they both feel the same emotions, and have the same basic needs to grow and thrive in life. However, there is a huge difference for a deaf child that is in one area, the ability to physically hear and respond to sound is drastically different. The Deaf or hard of hearing (HOH) child can not hear and process sounds the way a full hearing child can. The change in hearing affects the way the brain is receptive to visual stimuli. The study of visual changes in Deaf individuals, born profoundly Deaf within the Deaf community, highlights the impact of auditory deprivation on cognition.  The study in the article by Bavelier showed that auditory deprivation leads to enhanced peripheral vision in the deaf individual compared to the hearing individual the sensory measures, however, were the same for both. (Bavelier 2006).  It is found in this research that the deaf child and the hearing child while are the same in many ways do have some fundamental differences that play a role in how they communicate. Since the deaf responds differently to sounds than the hearing child, giving a visual language to the deaf child would give the deaf child similar stimuli and benefits as oral language to the hearing child.

Language plays an important part in education. The ability to have access to full language starting from a birth will help the child understand and grasp social cues and relevance by decoding the way something is said and how it is presented as well as have a steady foundation for learning which starts birth. When language is not available to the child, they are already behind the hearing child and must play catch up in an educational system not set up for optimal success for the Deaf child. Optimal success would be a full inclusive classroom with a full access to a visual language and support systems equal to that of the hearing peers.

Research finds that language development fosters Theory of Mind, especially when mother and child conversations involve thoughts and wishes (Berger 2014). When teaching a child about animals how many times do you see a hearing mother/father asks the child, now what does the cat sound like? Meow, yes that is right!  Do you think that is a happy meow, or a sad meow? Do you think the cat wishes for you to keep petting him or to leave him alone? The child is able to learn cues and sounds and in his/her mind develop a theory of what they think a person/animal should be and feel like as well as that other people and animals have feelings outside of themselves. These early developments and theories that formulate in our minds carry on through the years and play a part in hindering the deaf child to fully achieve the same academic success as his/her hearing peers. This research points in supporting full language acquisition for all children. Those who are born Deaf and Hard of Hearing should get access to full language in the form of a signed language from birth and on to prepare them for success through their academic careers and prepare for the best chance to succeed in college and career options.

The deaf child that is raised by a deaf parent or a hearing parent who makes every opportunity to emerged in total language exposure with a signed language show the similar results to a hearing child raised with hearing parents. This is because the deaf parent is able to use more mental state signs and due to ASL being first language will be able to fully communicate with child in a language that helps the child thrive and understand the world around them from day one just as the hearing child.

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Deaf/Hard of Hearing children also exhibit challenges in affective interpersonal and intrapersonal Theory of Mind Affective interpersonal and intrapersonal Theory of Mind in which means inferring the affective states of others and recognizing and regulating one’s own affective states (Westby 2014). Intrapersonal cognitive Theory of Mind emerges around 18 months of age when children become aware of themselves as separate, unique individuals (Lewis 2014).  Unlike cognitive Theory of Mind, affective Theory of Mind cannot be as easily attributed to exposure language acquisition. The Deaf raised orally and the Deaf raised on signed language aged six to sixteen were both less successful than hearing children when asked to label photos of human and non-human cartoon faces as happy, sad, or angry (Westby 2014). A possible reason for this can be attributed to that the oral Deaf, are taught to lip read, therefore focus more on lip movements to understand what is being relayed to them, and therefore they are not focusing on the other facial gestures and expressions. A possible reason for the Deaf raised on signs is cultural differences in that while yes they rely on signs and gestures, American Sign Language signs and cues are not identical to English words and cues (Westby 2014), for example the when using American Sign Language one might use a furrowed brow to indicate, among other things, that we are asking a who, what, when, where, why or how type of question and that we hope for, or expect, that type of information in a response to our question. To the left is an example of one signing “#WHERE” with a furrowed eyebrow. It could look like they are confused or angry to one in English but to the Deaf individual it is a question. In Deaf culture one is more focused on a visual medium of language and it is possible that having them correlate information on a written format instead of a visual format could play in role in this finding. While this could pose as a possible language/communication barrier the studies are limited on this subject therefore it is not conclusive in the research at this moment in time.

Just because there are challenges presented to the student in education does not mean that every Deaf Child is doomed to fail and will not be accepted to a college or University. Many students are successful in school and make to college. Once a student is in college there are other challenges that must be faced to succeed and as mentioned earlier only one in four graduates. The next section will take a closer examination in to why this might be and strive to find solutions to challenges that are presented.

Language barriers are still present at the college/university level of education.

 In conclusion when looking at the different aspects of Theory of Mind, it is different for Deaf/Hard of Hearing child than for the Hearing child. Having a healthy state of mind and ability to understand and interpret emotions and inferences is a vital part of growing up and being successful in both personal aspects of life and academic aspects of life. Looking at the research that as been presented we were able to see some of the challenges that the Deaf/Hard of Hearing children have to go through. There is limited research done on these specific researches there are however  some solutions we could do to set up a plan for success for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing such as making language acquisition fully accessible to the Deaf child from birth and being aware of some cultural differences such as language differences, in doing so we could possibly give the Deaf/Hard of Hearing child the same chance as success as a hearing child. By recognizing issues such as language barriers and social theory of mind in the Deaf we can address these issues early on so that the Deaf child will grow up and be as successful in school and be prepared to enter college and graduate.


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  • Picture courtesy of Handspeak.com
  • http://www.handsandvoices.org/articles/education/ed/V13-1_beyondHS.htm
  • https://www.statista.com/statistics/235406/undergraduate-enrollment-in-us-universities/
  • https://www.statista.com/statistics/235406/undergraduate-enrollment-in-us-universities/


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