A new study conducted by a team from Vanderbilt University found that bilingual children with hearing loss learned new vocabulary better when taught using bilingual instruction. The researchers evaluated the effectiveness of bilingual and monolingual teaching practices to identify which method would work best with these children who face unique but under-investigated challenges in language learning.
The idea for the study was sparked when Ana Soares, a teacher of the deaf, and Andrea Vargas, a speech-language pathologist, from Mama Lere Hearing School at Vanderbilt noticed challenges that affected Spanish-speaking families when helping their children with hearing loss learn a language.
“There are many different ideas on how to teach children learning more than one language, and this debate includes children with hearing loss who are bilingual,” explained the study’s lead author Jena C. McDaniel. “An ongoing difference in opinion is whether new vocabulary should be taught in the native language, the new language, or both. More importantly, some have argued that teaching in the native language harms the ability to learn words in the new language.”
Surprised with the dearth of research into this important issue, the team set out to investigate for themselves. “We recognized the need for more evidence on how to meet the language needs of children with hearing loss who are bilingual, including the language used for intervention and instruction, and wanted to be a part of generating and disseminating that knowledge,” McDaniel told The Hearing Journal. “Thus, we created a clinician-researcher team with the goal of optimizing intervention services and language outcomes for children with hearing loss who are bilingual.”
The study, which involved giving alternating bilingual or monolingual language instructions to three Spanish–English-speaking children with hearing loss, provided evidence that put to question a prevalent belief in language teaching.
“When we counted words said in both languages (i.e., conceptual vocabulary), bilingual children with hearing loss showed more effective word learning when they received instruction in Spanish and English compared with being taught in English alone. We did not find any evidence of an inhibitory effect of instruction in Spanish on the children’s word learning in English,” noted McDaniel. “That is, there was no harmful effect when children were taught in their native language.”
“These findings do not support the widespread, but understudied, recommendation to teach bilingual children with hearing loss or other disabilities exclusively in English,” she added. “Our data suggest that there is no benefit to decreasing these learning opportunities by recommending that these children be taught the new language exclusively (i.e., English only).”
This study also helps the case of families who want to stay connected with their culture and native language. McDaniel noted, “We believe these findings are important because teaching children with hearing loss in their native language maximizes opportunities to learn new words from parents, siblings, and other community members who speak the child’s native language.”
Moving forward, the team hopes to replicate the study with participants with more diverse hearing loss profiles and language levels. “We would also like to focus on conceptual vocabulary as the primary dependent variable, vary the details of the bilingual intervention systematically to optimize its effectiveness, and target language skills other than vocabulary,” shared McDaniel.