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As someone who has grown up with deaf people and moved in various deaf circles all her life, I’m fascinated by the diversity of approaches to English across the spectrum of the deaf community. I think there is enormous research potential to analyse how and why some deaf people are able to match or surpass their hearing peers in English while others do not. It’s both a live issue and a very touchy subject for all sorts of reasons – partly because so much fuss is made about it to the point where many deaf people will actively reject English as their medium of expression (e.g. being “forced to speak” at school) and because hearing people routinely focus on the wrong things in their general perceptions, including in the media.

I think the subject is poorly understood both from the hearing side and from the deaf side, because people apply preconceived ideas about language analysis to ‘Deaf English’ so, seeing that I’ve had a bit of a break from this blog for a while, I want to resurrect it by looking at deaf people and the English language (simply because it is the majority ‘hearing’ language where I’m from, but similar problems will exist across all spoken languages to a greater or lesser degree). I’ve been thinking about this for a while and hope I can break down a few stereotypes thereby.

It’s a complex subject – because language is complex in itself. Think about when you take exams in French at school – as many of us will have done, including modified versions if you are deaf. The standard exam (at least when I took German A-level in 1999) tests you across four competencies: oral – your ability in the spoken language (and not only a French accent, but also to make imaginative use of verb constructions and carry on a conversation), thus your productive skills; dictation or an oral comprehension test, designed to assess your receptive skills in the spoken language; a written examination, for example an essay paper, which again tests productive skills, this time in the written domain; and finally a written comprehension test to test receptive skills in the written language.

Two sets of receptive and two sets of productive skills. Do most people master all four equally? Thinking about this question will be the basis of my new mini-series on language, looking at each skill in turn. Regarding productive oral skills, I think of my mother, who understood quite a lot of French, but whose ability to answer was limited to “tourist” French. I think of many sign language interpreters I know who can do a cracking English-BSL interpretation, but who are not as good as they think they are in voicing over BSL into English (sign language uses the same language part of the brain as spoken languages so I’m including it here). I think of my late uncle, who was a Serb, and was utterly unable even after over 50 years in the UK to speak English with anything other than a very strong Serbian accent yet could otherwise speak idiomatic English like the rest of us.

And I think of my own language skills: I’ve never spoken Latin because it’s a dead language, but I studied it at school and university. To that end, I can appreciate eloquent Ciceronian prose and Virgilian verse, but don’t expect me to write a blog post in their language, because my composition skills lag behind. I read and write French pretty competently, and, in truth, it is probably my best foreign language, but my speaking skills always take a day or two to kick in when I visit France, because I just don’t go regularly enough or for sufficient length of time to maintain complete oral fluency. Though my skills are actually quite good, and my French friend compliments me on my accent, I’m aware that I am less fluent than I used to be when I spoke French every day at school.

Yet, because I’ve studied linguistics, helping me to discern patterns of language similarities, I’m quite good at picking up receptive skills in languages I can’t speak at all, such as Dutch. So everybody varies in their language competencies and I think that’s a good base from which to start analysing deaf people’s relationships with the English language.

Oral productive skills are so routinely tested in learning foreign languages that it influences hearing people’s perception of deaf people’s oral language skills, but wait a minute. Remember those oral tests in French? The examiners are not just looking for a French accent, but for someone who is able to think in French and respond on the spot to a random question with complex grammatical constructions and a wide vocabulary. Hearing people tend to just check for the hearing ‘accent’ and internally ‘mark’ someone down for not imitating it perfectly, but forget that content and context forms the important part of spoken language – the ‘idiomatic’ aspects that show mastery of the language approaching that of the native speaker.

We may not all have perfect ‘hearing accents’ but the words we frame will be strung together in perfectly grammatical and high-level English to a greater degree than many hearing people think in the stereotypes they have ascribed to deaf people. This is not true of all deaf people, of course, but remember, many hearing people do not have perfect grammar or a wide vocabulary either. We may sound deaf, but we can’t help that. If you can’t hear yourself that well, how can you expect to have ‘perfect control’ over your speech, in terms of volume or tonal range or pitch? If I said to a random hearing British person pulled in off the street, ‘Do me a Turkmeni accent’, the chances are they won’t be able to imitate it, because they haven’t been exposed to it.

If I said to that same person, ‘Do me a French/German/American accent’, they are likely to produce something recognisable as having features of those accents, even if not necessarily good accents, because they have heard them through travel and the media. This, however, does not mean that they speak French or German, or, if English-speakers, have ever lived in the States and routinely use ‘elevator’ instead of ‘lift’.

Like my random person on the street, we deaf people who are pre-lingually deaf or ‘early-deafened’ after the acquisition of language, haven’t been fully exposed to the ‘hearing accent’ either, in terms of the mechanics of speech, even though we may pick up clues from what we can still hear and through what we lipread. So much of speech is hidden – at the back of the throat, the movement of tongues behind teeth, the elision of one letter-sound into another – how can people whose primary sense is visual see these mechanics to reproduce them, if they cannot hear them perfectly?

There has recently been a widely-circulated video of a lady who received bilateral cochlear implants: much of the press reporting was sensationalist and befogged people’s perceptions instead of clarifying them. http://www.sense.org.uk/content/jo-milne-usher-peer-mentor-coordinator-sense-has-had-cochlear-implant-operation

A comment that kept coming up from hearing people – and from some deaf people too – was amazement that the lady in question had acquired a Geordie accent, puzzling and nagging away at that question, disbelieving that she could be deaf enough to require CIs if she could do that. It was quite simple. She had had sufficient residual hearing to acquire one, and it isn’t that unusual. I know other deaf people who speak with pronounced regional accents because they can hear sufficiently well to pick out those features of speech. Although I don’t have a regional accent, I myself speak with the very neutral British accent my parents inculcated in me (“not posh, but not common either” is how one colleague described it). Accents show most strongly in vowels, where not only the sound but the lip pattern differs (think of how a Bath citizen might describe their place of residence: Baarth, whereas a Geordie would call it “Bahth“, shading over almost into “Beth“, but not quite). So a deaf person can still pick up a regional accent even if they cannot hear all aspects of speech, and the visual medium of lipreading may well reinforce what they are able to hear, in showing them how to frame that sound.

And people who are post-lingually deafened will still pick up features of deaf speech such as a flatter voice with less tonal range – they pick up an accent of the new country of the deaf they have moved to, if you like, in the same way as someone might acquire a mid-Atlantic accent, because they are less able to hear that range and pick out particular speech sounds.

But I want to chuck away stereotypes and explore a few reasons for these variations. I once met a man who was post-lingually deafened as an adult, yet his lip patterns had changed to such an extent that that they were more like those of someone born deaf. The extent of his acquisition of deaf lip patterns surprised me, as someone who has been used to lipreading born deaf people all her life. I gained the impression from speaking to him that his oral memory had faded quite rapidly and he had equally rapidly lost confidence in his speech. Conversely, my oral memory was quite tenacious and I think it helped me retain relatively ‘good’ speech after becoming completely deaf as a child, and well into adulthood – an impression reinforced by the fact that my speech started to deteriorate as my oral memory was fading. And being pre-lingually deaf is not necessarily an indicator of speech that may be difficult for hearing people to understand. The degree of deafness has something to do with it, but it isn’t the complete story: I know people who are much more deaf than others, yet their speech is more comprehensible to a hearing person than someone less deaf. Use of BSL is not necessarily a factor: someone who doesn’t use BSL may still have speech where a hearing person has to ‘tune in’. Intensive speech therapy may show better results for some people than for others, and so on.

How and why these variations occur fascinates me from a linguistic point of view and is part of the rich diversity of deaf people. I never tire of ‘people-watching’ from that point of view and I hope it provides some food for thought. Also, my aim is to stimulate a bit of debate to talk about ways in which we can dismantle stereotypes and improve the experience of learning English for deaf children and adult learners.