Deaf Children Write Differently

News from The Netherlands
translated by Arlette Van de Casteele

Deaf children who in their daily life ‘speak’ mainly Dutch Sign Language have more difficulties writing in Dutch than deaf and hearing children of the same age who use no sign language. The graduating researcher of Nijmegen (the Netherlands) Liesbeth van Beijsterveldt has studied their writing mistakes. The different types of mistakes seem to be easily explained with the existing theories on learning a second language.

Sign language is not a language you can write. Therefore, deaf people who communicate in Dutch Sign Language (NGT) write in Dutch. NGT doesn’t resemble Dutch at all. It has its own grammar and vocabulary, which is quite different from Dutch. Consequently, deaf children who mainly communicate in NTG have difficulty learning to write in Dutch.
At the Radboud University of Nijmegen, Liesbeth van Beijsterveldt has studied the writing skills of deaf children and adults. She has compared texts written by deaf and non-deaf people. In the texts of the deaf she distinguished between the deaf people who mainly speak NTG and those who mostly use Dutch. She discovered that deaf children who chiefly use NTG make more mistakes in their Dutch texts. In most instances, these mistakes can be explained by the NTG background of the child.

This text is written by a deaf girl of 11:

“Formerly I and my class quarrel with other class. That is not nice. Other child says. Mieke is stupid and always boss. Then says Mieke. That are you self. Then other children help on other child. Then my class help on Mieke.
Later go we inside. Then other children say on they teacher. Teacher of other class says on our teacher. Then must we not quarrel and also other children! Then say we sorry. Now quarrel we not, well bit not much. We can make up.”

One can easily understand the mistakes that deaf children make in their Dutch texts if one knows more about Dutch Sign Language (NTG). NTG makes no use of articles. Consequently, the research work of Van Beijsterveldt also revealed that deaf children who used mainly NTG left out a lot of articles in their texts. These children also had problems with verb conjugation in the past tense. This is probably due to the fact that in their NTG the past tense is communicated with specific time signs (such as ‘yesterday’) and not with verb conjugation. These mistakes occurred less frequently with deaf children who mainly use the spoken language.
Another way in which the texts of deaf children who use NTG diverge from the texts of hearing children and deaf children who use no NTG is the expression of evaluation, meaning the information that is provided in the text about the emotions, thoughts and motives of the individual. NTG has more ways of expressing these than the spoken Dutch language. So NTG signers can change the direction of their gaze or the orientation of their body, adapt their signs as to speed or movement, or alter their facial expression. Consequently, deaf children who use a lot of NTG more often enrich their texts with evaluative utterances than the other children.
To be adapted
How well the deaf children wrote in Dutch seemed to be strongly related to their age. The older deaf children (15-16) who used NTG made many fewer mistakes than the younger ones (11-12). And the deaf adults no longer make these mistakes. “These results suggest that the influence of one language on the other decreases with maturation,” the researcher says. Why this is so, Van Beijsterveldt can’t explain with certainty. “It may be that being exposed longer to the two languages with different grammatical systems has led to more insight into both systems and rules.”
According to the graduating researcher, these results point to the fact that the education of the deaf has to be adapted considerably. “I think that deaf children have to learn both languages as they do at present, but I think it is important that attention is given to the differences between the languages”, Van Beijsterveldt says. “Teachers could explain to the children how the grammatical systems of both languages work and what the differences are. By doing this, they might help children to move more easily through the stage during which learning two languages at the same time can be confusing.”
Liesbeth van Beijsterveldt will defend her thesis ‘Written language production in deaf children and adults’ on Friday 6th February 2009 at 10:30 in the auditorium of the Radboud University of Nijmegen.

Dove kinderen schrijven anders – Nieuws
Oorakel, informatie and advies, 28 January 2009

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