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Children without a language


In September last year a five-year-old boy arrived at preschool in Sydney with no language. Owen is deaf and for five years medical professionals instructed his parents not to sign. The boy had been fitted with cochlear implants and told these devices would eventually give him access to speech. They didn't.

Hands display sign languageOwen is now enrolled in the only bilingual preschool for deaf children in Sydney, eagerly learning Auslan (Australian Sign Language). His face lights up each time he learns a new sign; Owen loves preschool and is thrilled to finally communicate.

But he's lost the most vital five years of language acquisition; studies show this will impact his linguistic and cognitive abilities for the rest of his life. He will never catch up to his hearing peers.

Last year, the bilingual preschool, was cut to three days a week; when it reopens after the holidays, it will only be open two days a week. In 2017 it will probably close.

This centre is the only place in Sydney where deaf children can learn Auslan.

Owen's story is not unique.

Every year children arrive at deaf schools across Australia well behind their hearing peers with little or no language, because parents and professionals have refused to sign. The reasons for this are many, but an underlying theme is that parents and professionals want the children to be 'normal'.

This is surprising, considering we live in a time when difference is more accepted than ever. Gone are the days of Leave it to Beaver when the norm was straight, white, able-bodied middle class families. Here, in the 21st century, Mardi Gras is mainstream and Adam Goodes is a brand ambassador for David Jones. Racism and prejudice still exist, but in the media we are seeing more diversity than ever before.

Yet when it comes to parenting a deaf child, the tendency is to reject difference. Parents and professionals try to force that child to be something they're not: hearing.

In 2013 I presented a paper at the International Conference of the World Federation for the Deaf in Sydney, where I gave the results of a survey of 72 hearing parents of deaf children in Australia. The majority said they had been told not to sign by speech therapists or medical professionals.

Six years ago my daughter, Kaitlyn, was diagnosed with progressive hearing loss. Initially, I was devastated.

I, too, was told by an early intervention centre not to sign with my deaf child. 'It may interfere with her spoken language development,' they said, though there's no research to support this claim.

When she was three, I went against that advice and began studying Auslan. I enrolled my daughter in the bilingual preschool and she learned to sign better than me.

She's now in a signing choir. One day a week she goes to the deaf school, where she learns Auslan, is able to socialise with children like herself, and doesn't miss the jokes. Some of her friends at her mainstream school have started to sign as well. They use a mixture of speech and sign on the playground. When people sign, Kaitlyn doesn't miss out. 'I hear with my eyes,' she says.

No two deaf children are alike and Kaitlyn's in a very different position to the five year-old boy who's just started to learn Auslan. She speaks clearly. Her hearing aids work (much of the time) but she hears when it's quiet and her aids are in and on and working and she's looking at you.

We don't live in a quiet world. People don't always look at you when they talk. Hearing aids often break. Mainstream school is noisy and I'd estimate she misses about half of what her hearing peers hear.

Sign language has been controversial for a long time. In 1880, at the second International Conference on the Education of the Deaf in Milan, experts voted on a resolution that banned using sign language to teach deaf children worldwide. Some older members of the Deaf community in Sydney report that they were made to sit on their hands in school.

Even now, sign language is seen as a last resort in Australia, as evidenced by Owen and the other deaf children who arrive at preschool and school without a language.

I'm so grateful for what that bilingual preschool gave Kaitlyn. She's confident, happy, bright, and proud of her deaf identity. But she may well be part of the last generation of deaf children to sign in Australia.

This will be a loss for Australian cultural and linguistic diversity. It will be an even bigger loss for individuals like Kaitlyn. And for children such as Owen, it will be a devastating loss.


Sarah KlenbortSarah Klenbort is a US-born writer of fiction and non-fiction who also teaches literature at the University of Western Sydney.

Topic tags: Sarah Klenbort, sign language, deafness, Auslan



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Existing comments

There are many 'threats' to the Deaf community's use of sign language - Auslan in the case of Australia, but I think there is a very strong groundswell of support. Drisana Levitzke-Grey; our current Young Australian of the Year (2015) being one of them firmly advocating for provision of sign language for all deaf children. Perhaps an article in support of this, rather than a doomsday - 'it's already happened' article.

Susan Bates | 18 January 2016  

I've been reading a lot lately about language acquisition in very young children. One finding interested me very much. Infants who are read and talked to by their parents acquire language much faster than children who don't. Infants who are spoken to via a screen and recorded language show no improvement at all from this method. Reading Sarah's article, I regret very much that so many children have been deprived too early of the joys of communication. My question - do parents of profoundly deaf children still read and sing and talk to their children in that wonderful cuddling-at-bedtime situation which is so important for language acquisition? Whether or not they have implants? Or has the baby been thrown out with the bathtub? I'd hope that all children could be cuddled and talked to as well as learning to sign if necessary, and I'd imagine that deaf children would benefit by this too. Infant brains are wired for language acquisition, whether or not they are deaf.

Joan Seymour | 18 January 2016  

Heartening about Kaitlyn but not such good news about Owen, Sarah. Obviously the whole matter of Auslan teaching and the bilingual school need to be re-raised with the educational authorities. It seems your intelligent mother's intuition worked well. Hopefully others will heed this. Deaf or partially deaf people need not be marginalised further. Thank you for this perceptive article.

Edward Fido | 19 January 2016  

The idea that withholding language (Auslan) will promote speech (English) is ridiculous. Plato knew that language was the way we create ourselves and can know and understand the world around us. Children need language from as early as possible, to develop their cognition - who really cares what that language it is at that point, when the alternative is not to have it? As a mother and an educator I know that it's much easier to work with a child who has one solid language and can learn a second, than a 5 year old with no functional language at all.

Amie | 19 January 2016  

I burnt HK$100M in 10 years studying brain and language development of 12,000 infants and toddlers while tracking down the latest developments in the field around the world. Language and cognitive development are linked. Sign and spoken language both stimulate the brain. The first 3 years are crucial. Don't wait.

Sam Chow (from HK) | 19 January 2016  

When my own baby was born 10 years ago, I was advised that she had perfect hearing, but I considered teaching her "baby signs" anyway. As an academic, I was an avid reader of research. There are proponents (eg Dr Linda Acredolo & Dr Susan Goodwyn) who claim that research shows signing can promote (rather than hinder) spoken language in children. The research is with children without hearing/speech impediments, but presumably the same applies to all children. So why are professionals hesitant to see language as a broader basket of skills, rather than simply listening and speaking? I have a major hearing loss myself, and although I use hearing aids rather than signing, I think that all forms communication should be promoted as much as possible for those with limited or no hearing. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

Angela | 19 January 2016  

I recommend "Seeing Voices" by the recently deceased Oliver Sacks, as a wonderfully erudite endorsement of signing by someone who knew what he was talking about. As you mention, the ban on sign language came at a conference in 1880; anyone who holds to that idea belongs in that era.

Frank | 19 January 2016  

As a former teacher I think this is a great article. We cannot expect all profoundly deaf children to be educated orally.One of my biggest disappointments eas that sign language was such a no-no.

Helen Gaffe | 20 January 2016  

Kaitlyn and Owen are the lucky ones! Consider the plight of Deaf kids who will only learn Auslan when as young adults they leave the control of the education and medical establishments. Sarah, keep plugging away, in 20 years when Kaitlyn graduates from the university of Western Sydney as a teacher or doctor or engineer she will do it because of her fluent Auslan as well as her English reading and writing skills.

Sister Di | 20 January 2016  

Excellent article. Would you send me a copy of your 2013 presentation? As you know, the situation is similar in many developed countries, and in developing countries, there are even fewer options. Very important work!

Marie Coppola | 20 January 2016  

I am the chairman of Decibel, the national Danish organization for parents with children having a hearing impairment. I am puzzled that it appears that no Auditory Verbal Therapy (AVT) program is being offered. AVT is the only evidence based method which - if no other handicap is at play - has a prognosis of normal, age adequate spoken language. My own son, who has bilateral Cochlear implants, has followed a 3 year AVT program, and he is now perfectly bilingual (age adequate) in spoken Danish and French (my wife is french). I suspect some important details in the above article is missing. Anyhow, I am puzzled.

Yaacov Kigiel-Slor | 20 January 2016  

Well said! My son is severely deaf and uses hearing technology (CI and hearing aid). For us it was a given that we should also learn sign language (Swedish Sign Language in our case), no way could we ever rely on technology alone. Now, at age four he his fluent in Swedish, speaks fairly good English and uses a little bit of sign language. We sign - he talks.

Emma Pritchard | 21 January 2016  

I believe we should give the best opportunities for our children. As a CODA, my opinion is if I had a deaf child, I would first and foremost give the gift of sign language. It is an international language of a newborn and child. Whether they be hearing, deaf, autistic or challenged in anyway. Then go from there.

Gail Knecht | 22 January 2016  

PEOPLE first! While the article was good-yet disheartening, how can we expect change if even in language you are defining a person by whether or not they can hear?! Everyone is a person first not a disability then a person. Perhaps if we as a whole begin to use person first language then perhaps we as a whole may see people first and not let a disability define a person. Let's make forward progress! If we know a barrier exists let's knock it down or at least begin taking action towards that end goal. It's a well known fact that people may differ in learning styles so let's stop limiting what styles those may be and start trying to be more inclusive in our societies. Research, educate, advocate- spark that wildfire of change. Be more conscientious of ALL humankind- and SPEAK UP! and take action- while we cannot change the past, the future is open for improvements.

Caitlin Norman | 22 January 2016  

I met Sarah last year at an Auslan residential. It was an honour to read this article and be able to directly relate to it. Being a carer for a Deaf child who was denied access to language until he was 5 we are constantly breaking down barriers. This includes within the education system and the broader community. People believe because he is aided he doesn't need Auslan and find that it is an incovenience when we request an interpreter. Auslan is his language and our family are proud supporters of Auslan within his life and the community. Language acquisition isn't just speech.

Cath Loveday | 12 February 2018  

I am a Deaf Education teacher and I experience the horror of children entering school not able to communication. The medical community and educators have fail our children miserable by denying the opportunity to learn sign language. They take advantage of those grieving parents. I know, I am the parent of 2 signing Deaf daughters. They are very successful.

Peggy | 03 November 2018  

I have been teaching deaf/hoh for over 20 years. The included the whole range from ASL immersion on deaf school campus and CI in mainstream. The students who came to me at age 5 or in middle school who had AVT from trained AVT practitioners, all still had severe gaps in their language. The kids did not get caught up after years in AVT. I do believe it’s possible for a few CI kids however all can have beneficial brain development when ASL has is included to some level by qualified signers. I have taught other CI in a bilingual way and they did achieve inclusion in general education using spoken language. Learning ASL did not harm English development when done in a bilingual program and thorough planning.

Angela | 26 August 2020  

As the story says it is not ‘alone’. I gave a presentation at the National Press Club last year titled ‘Does Listening Help? The impact of dead children’s literacy’. When enough is enough? Kyle Miers Chief Executive Deaf Australia https://deafaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Does-Listening-Help-NPC-Address-21-Aug-2019.pdf

Kyle Miers | 30 August 2020  

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