“English is easy,” signed Botond (pseudonym), a young Deaf
The Department of English Applied Linguistics at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), Budapest, has been involved in the investigation the foreign language (FL) learning situation of special needs learners for more than a decade. Our research has focused on two groups in particular: dyslexic language learners as the largest special needs group and Deaf learners, who seem to be the most disadvantaged of all. The collection of empirical data regarding the foreign language learning of hearing impaired people was preceded by gathering general information about the Hungarian Deaf community, their language and culture, and their education at the special schools for the hearing impaired. In this article, after giving a brief introduction to the context of Deaf people, their languages, and the research conducted on Deaf foreign language learning at the Department of English Applied Linguistics, I will give an insight into how Deaf language learners in Hungary feel about English and why some of them might consider it “easy.”
The Hungarian Deaf community is considered to be the third largest minority in Hungary though estimates regarding its size vary from less than 9,000 according to the latest census (Központi Statisztikai Hivatal, 2014) to 60,000, a figure frequently cited in the literature (Bartha, Hattyár & Szabó, 2006, p. 852; Vasák, 1996, p. 81). Who is considered d/Deaf depends on the approach taken. The medical-pathological approach considers deafness a disability that should be eliminated or at least mitigated by using assistive technology. Hearing loss is measured in decibels (dB), and the line between deaf and hard-of-hearing is usually drawn at 90dB (EMMI, 2012, p. 3410). As opposed to that, the anthropological-cultural view promoted also by the Deaf community (Jokinen, 2000; Ladd, 2003; Lane, Hofmeister, & Bahan, 1996; Vasák, 2005) looks at Deaf persons as members of a linguistic and cultural minority bonded by the use of a common language, which is the national sign language, and a common culture it represents. This is reflected in the spelling of the word Deaf with a capital D in English and, in a similar vein, in the use of the word siket in Hungarian. According to this latter approach, being Deaf is a matter of self-identification. There are some deaf persons who refuse to sign and identify with the hearing community, but one also encounters people who are hard-of-hearing in an audiological sense but say they have a Deaf identity.
The Deaf minority is different from all other minorities due to the low ratio of hereditary deafness. Approximately 90–95% of Deaf children worldwide have hearing parents, which means that the majority of Deaf children cannot naturally acquire sign language in the family, nor can they inherit Deaf culture from their mothers or fathers. What leads to the extreme disadvantage of Deaf children is their deprivation of language, that is, age-adequate language input. If they are surrounded by a spoken language they do not hear and are not exposed to sign language either at home or in Deaf playgroups, they miss out on age appropriate linguistic as well as cognitive development (Dotter, 2013; Goldin-Meadow & Mayberry, 2001; Grosjean, 2001; Hattyár, 2010; Krausneker, 2008; Vasák, 2005). As a result, they enter school with a serious handicap. As Vasák put it, “it is the deprivation of sign language that makes Deaf persons disabled” (Vasák, 1996, p. 103).
As opposed to popular belief, sign language does not constitute a single, universal code system.
The use of sign languages in education has a rugged history. As a result of a resolution taken by the predominantly hearing participants of the Second International Congress on the Education of the Deaf in Milan in 1880, sign languages were banned and Deaf teachers were dismissed from the special schools for the Deaf for about 100 years. This was done on the conviction that the “superiority of speech over signs would aid in restoring deaf-mutes to social life” and provide a “greater facility of language” (Gallaudet University Archives, 1963, 2005). The new teaching method introduced worldwide was oralism, which insisted on Deaf children learning to speak with the assumption that the laboriously learnt spoken language could be used not only for communication and for developing literacy skills but also as a language for thought. Children were taught to produce sounds and to understand speech via lip-reading so that they could be like their hearing peers and could fit into the hearing society. The Deaf protested in vain, and oralism has prevailed in various forms as the dominant teaching method all over the world (cf. Komesaroff, 2008; Moores, 2010; Watson, 1998; Woll, 2005).
Although research studies on how Deaf persons learn foreign languages are few and far between (cf. Domagała-Zyśk, 2013; Janáková, 2008; Kellett Bidoli & Ochse, 2008), teaching foreign languages to Deaf persons is nothing new. Some of our older Hungarian research participants recalled in their interviews how they had had Russian classes, and some younger adults remembered the time when English or German had been first introduced in their schools or how difficult it had been for the school to find a suitable teacher. Some related that they had been exempted against their will; others regretted with hindsight that they had accepted the waiver offered by their school. At present, all special needs institutions in the country offer a foreign language, predominantly English, as required by the National Curriculum of 2012 (Nemzeti alaptanterv, 2012). Paradoxically, those students who are considered to have better overall abilities and are therefore transferred to mainstream schools are the ones most frequently left out of FL learning. They tend to be offered an exemption from the FL requirement as a rule so that they have more time for keeping up with their peers in their other subjects.
The debate between oralism and manualism is ongoing internationally not only in Deaf education in general but also with regard to the teaching of foreign languages. Some teacher-researchers promote the use of speech because they are convinced that Deaf persons can and also want to learn to speak in the FL (Domagała-Zyśk, 2016). Others support the use of sign languages and focus on teaching the written form of the target language (Eilers-crandall, 2008; Fleming, 2008). In Norwegian schools, for instance, children first get acquainted with British Sign Language (BSL) in order to experience a foreign language and culture through a medium that they find easy to cope with, and start learning English as a follow-up (Pritchard, 2013). A similar strategy is used with Deaf international students at the University of Wolverhampton in the UK. In order to have a shared language with the group, the foreign Deaf students are first taught BSL, and then the teaching of written English can proceed through the medium of sign language (Fleming, 2008).
At ELTE, the first systematic investigation targeting special needs language learners was launched in 2006
In the adult project 23 semi-structured interviews were conducted with hearing impaired adults, 18 of whom identified themselves as Deaf and five as hard-of-hearing. They were selected via snowball sampling with the help of the Hungarian Association for the Deaf and Hard-of-hearing (SINOSZ). Each of the selected participants had some FL learning experience either from their school years or from their adult age or both. In order to ensure barrier free communication with the participants, a sign language interpreter was provided at all times; however, some of the hard-of-hearing participants preferred to use speech instead of HSL. The adult interviews lasted for about 55–60 minutes each.
In the school project, our research team visited all seven residential schools in Hungary as well as the vocational secondary school that has a unit for hearing impaired students in Budapest. With the exception of one school where German is taught, all institutions offer English on the curriculum. Out of the 105 14–19-year-old students who completed the written questionnaire, 31 students were selected for individual interviews. A sign language interpreter was provided for each of the conversations, and most of the students switched from HSL to spoken Hungarian and back several times during the approximately 30 minutes of the interviews.
All interviews in each project were both audio and video recorded to capture every bit of information whether it was signed or spoken and to be able to match the sign language interpreter’s translations to the original message in order to ensure that nothing got lost in translation. The student interviews were complemented by interviews with the language teachers of the respective schools: nine English teachers altogether. Out of the nine English teachers, only two were proficient signers, three teachers could not sign at all, the rest had learnt some HSL from their students on the job.
Although many of our Deaf research participants expressed their interest in learning English and their conviction that Deaf persons were able to learn languages successfully, over the years we only came across a few persons whose efforts had led to measurable success. The highest level of proficiency in English was achieved by a young Deaf woman we named Csilla (pseudonym), who managed to take the prestigious TOEFL exam. Other success stories included passing the secondary school matura exam in a FL, or taking the basic level state language exam as an adult. In our investigations, success was frequently linked to the use of sign language as the medium of education. Csilla, for example, had experienced a great deal of frustration and failure in courses she attended with hearing students due to the fast pace of the orally taught classes and the material that was targeted at hearing students. Finally, she met an English major student who was learning HSL and needed some individual practice. Thus the two of them helped each other: the student explained English grammar to the Deaf woman, who in return practiced HSL with her. The use of HSL helped others, as well. A few of our adult interviewees, including Botond, were able to take the written part of a basic level state exam in English as a result of a language course for Deaf persons taught via HSL. A special success story is the case of a young male interviewee who acquired English in a foreign environment. He went to work in Britain, became a pizza delivery boy, made acquaintances with both hearing and Deaf persons, visited Deaf clubs, and by the time he returned home after seven months, he was so confident in his use of English that he decided to teach written English to other hearing impaired persons.
The participants in our school sample were too young to give accounts of comparable results to the adult participants, but they expressed similar goals and ambitions. Considering the experiences of our adult participants, the teenage students’ aspirations did not seem unrealistic. Some of them had plans to continue their FL studies; others imagined that, after finishing school, they would work abroad in restaurants or as a carpenter, a construction worker or a car mechanic. A boy in the 9th grade put emphasis on planning to work abroad in a job that would require the use of English but only in writing, not in speech:
[I imagine] I would be in Sweden, I would be working there as an IT specialist, a programmer, I would not be talking to anyone, and through the computer… I would communicate on the computer in English. (Kontra, Csizér, & Piniel, 2014, p. 7)
The language teachers in the special schools also had their success stories. They talked about learners who continued their studies in mainstream education and did not give up on learning English. There were successful Comenius projects, which allowed the children to communicate with foreign students in writing via email or chat, and we also heard of the travel experiences of some students who were enthusiastic about understanding signs at the airport or at the hotel. When asked about what type or level of achievement the teachers would consider realistic on the part of their students, they believed that it was possible for their learners to acquire some basic skills they can use when travelling abroad or using the Internet.
Considering the small number of successful students and the modest levels of their achievements, we have to realize that English is not all that easy for Deaf learners after all. During our research, we did come across several cases of failure; however, it is important to note that our adult participants did not blame it on the language being too difficult or on themselves not having the ability to cope. Much more frequently we heard them express dissatisfaction with the teaching method, the dominance of speaking and listening activities, and the lack of accommodations for Deaf students. A young man explained why he had asked for a waiver at the university as follows:
the first time I went to class, I entered, everybody was talking, they were doing some situational conversation, there was nothing [for me], so eventually I said ‘No, I am not doing this, this is not my style,’ so I packed up and left. (Kontra, 2013, p. 103)
Deaf learners obviously cannot make use of recorded listening comprehension tasks, but we must realize that understanding speech via lip-reading is also extremely difficult not only for Deaf but also for hard-of-hearing persons. According to estimates, only about 30–35% of spoken language can be lip-read, the rest of the message Deaf persons need to fill in using the context, their intelligence and their experience. Relying on speech-reading for communication in a FL, that is, an L3, is virtually impossible; it does not go beyond the recognition of some well rehearsed phrases and formulaic expressions. Producing speech is equally challenging. Deaf children are taught to produce sounds and speech in Hungarian by speech therapists and achieve various levels of success. There is no comparable training for speaking in a FL. Most of our participants told us they did not want to speak in English not only because English pronunciation was difficult but also because they did not think they would be understood by strangers.
There were other aspects of learning English that seemed to cause problems for several of our research participants. A frequently mentioned difficulty by our teenage sample was learning and remembering vocabulary. Students found learning new English words especially hard if they were not familiar with the concept in their L1 either. Some teachers also told us that they frequently had to discuss the meaning of a new English word in HSL first, and then teach the English and the Hungarian lexical items together. This problem originates in the lack of age appropriate language development of hearing impaired children we discussed earlier. Deaf children learn every spoken word via instruction, which severely limits their development of lexical knowledge in the majority spoken language. Memorizing and recalling words and phrases also turned out to be a challenge. Those adult learners who had a chance to learn English via ASL, however, did not give account of similar difficulties. It seemed that linking a foreign word to a visual representation made recalling the item easier for them. Our observation is supported by Dutch findings cited in Knoors and Marschark (2012), that “not only do hard-of-hearing and deaf children learn more words by the application of signs combined with spoken or written words, they also remember the words better” (p. 297). Since understanding written texts both in a person’s L1 and L2 predominantly depends on lexical coverage (Nation, 2006), it is self-evident that the low level of vocabulary knowledge of our participants resulted in difficulties in reading comprehension, as well.
In the light of the above hardships saying that “English is easy” for Deaf language learners is at best paradoxical. But put in context, Botond and his fellow learners are still right. Botond explained that English was easy in comparison to Hungarian, which was difficult. He clarified this by referring to the agglutinative nature of Hungarian. He observed that while the English language operated with prepositions and “every word was separate,” in Hungarian we used prefixes and suffixes, sometimes several of them piled onto the basic form of words. Matters were made even worse by vowel harmony, which he explained as case endings having “different forms.” By this, Botond was referring to binary and ternary suffixes, saying that “in Hungarian we have -on, -en, -ön and -ban, -ben, but in English there is only one on and in.” The same feature was also pointed out by a 7th grade student in our school sample who actually identified himself as hard-of-hearing. A 9th grade student explained the easiness of English as follows:
It’s easy to learn, its grammar isn’t hard. […] In English there is no definite conjugation [tárgyas ragozás], there is no -t suffix at the end of the [direct] object of the sentence, there is nothing like this. […] There are only words one after the other.
Several interviewees, Deaf and hard-of-hearing alike, commented on the difficulty of Hungarian sentence structures as well, suggesting that both comprehending grammatical structures and putting a sentence together were easier in English because English was more transparent than Hungarian. A Deaf student in the 11th grade lamented that there was a lot in Hungarian that did not make sense to her and therefore making sense of English via Hungarian did not work for her either. This comment was confirmed by our lesson observations during which we noticed that the teacher eliciting or giving the Hungarian equivalent of a complex FL structure frequently did not help the learners understand the meaning at all.
We met a few interviewees who had some experience in learning different foreign languages beside English, and when they made a comparison, Hungarian invariably came out as a difficult language, more difficult than English, though some found German even harder due to its highly inflected nature. Hungarian was judged to be difficult not only in comparison with English: an older adult participant had learnt Russian at school and thought that, in spite of the Cyrillic script, learning Russian was easy because it was logical. A young man who was extremely fond of languages and started learning Latin on his own from books told us that his best experience with this language was that via Latin he managed to understand the Hungarian language. Overall, we can conclude that although learning English is difficult, in comparison to Hungarian, which Deaf persons also learn like a foreign language, English seems relatively easy.
Several researchers have already pointed out that Deaf and severely hard-of-hearing children learn Hungarian via instruction, just like a foreign language (Bombolya, n.d.; Muzsnai, 1999; Szabó, 1999, 2003), as a result of which their vocabulary as well as the development of their reading comprehension show significant delays in comparison to their hearing peers. This is a universal phenomenon among Deaf and hard-of-hearing persons. Writing about the literacy skills of Deaf American school leavers, Holcomb and Payton (1992) observe that “most deaf high school graduates read English at roughly a third or fourth grade level as determined by standardized reading assessments” (p. 2). Szabó (2003) cites similar research data regarding Hungarian schoolchildren’s literacy and grammar skills.
Hearing impaired Hungarian learners have been found to demonstrate uncertainty in their use of grammatical structures and they produce errors characteristic of foreign learners of Hungarian. Even those Deaf adults who read and write well find certain features of Hungarian difficult to master, such as the use of articles, verbs with verbal prefixes [igekötős igék], linking words or the correct word order in sentences. These are clearly such features of spoken Hungarian which do not exist (e.g., articles) or are used differently in HSL (e.g., word order). Bodnár (2012), therefore, suggests that teaching Hungarian as a foreign language from materials developed for foreign students would lead to higher levels of achievement among Deaf learners.
Building our Deaf education on the assumption that the L1 of all Hungarian Deaf children is Hungarian is misconceived. It follows from the above that for Deaf sign language users the use of HSL as the language of education should be preferred in our special schools. Even if Deaf and severely hard-of-hearing children start school with an underdeveloped knowledge of HSL, as a visual language, HSL is still the only means of communication fully accessible to them. There is no limit to a Deaf child’s development in their national sign language. In HSL, Deaf Hungarian students can fully understand the teachers’ explanations; they can comprehend the meaning of lexical items and enhance the storage and retrieval of new vocabulary by linking the concept to its representation in sign language. The fact that sign languages are genuine languages entails that L1 sign language users can and do think in sign.
The use of HSL in education does not mean the exclusion of Hungarian. Deaf people are bilingual, which has to be acknowledged and supported. The fact that many of them are sign language dominant bilinguals (Grosjean, 1992, 2001; Kontráné Hegybíró, 2014) has to be taken into account in teaching any subject, including the teaching of foreign languages. The student participants gave several reasons why they needed sign language support in the English lessons: because they could comprehend the material more easily, because this was how they could communicate, and because this was for them the way to understand things, they said (Kontra, Csizér, & Piniel, 2014). Having a teacher who can use HSL in teaching English can indeed make the learning of English easy, as Botond suggested, or at least easier.
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