Does ASL hinder development of English / Literacy?

For a long time, I have always wondered about that question. I’m not an educator nor have I ever taught the art of language. I did however receive the research paper from someone who wanted to share their findings based on what they have learned in school. I am not going to copy word for word, but I’ll interpret the best of my ability on what I have read.

signLanguageThe citation was originally written by R.B. Wilbur who wrote an article, “The Use of ASL to Support the Development of English and Literacy” in Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. The article explains the importance of using the first language, ASL, with deaf students to develop their English skills. Wilbur made the comparison of “English and ASL as natural languages for similarities and differences”. It was an argument based on the use of ASL as the first language to develop English and how first language contributes to developing cognitive skills.

Wilbur believes that ASL is a natural language for deaf people. The article explains the two factors to define a natural language, which includes a community of users and babies that can learn from birth. Here’s Wilbur’s comparision with hearing and deaf people’s similarities of natural languages…

“It must be a perfect fit with the perception and production characteristics of the human user, and over time, natural languages evolve to fit the modality in which they are produced and perceived. Obviously, spoken languages are designed to be communicative with ease by people who speak and hear. Similarly, signed languages are evolved to provide easy communication for people who sign and see” (Wilbur, 2000, p. 95).

Other researchers, Susan Easterbrooks and Sharon Baker, also believe that ASL is the most competent visual language for deaf students. With the support of research studies, Wilbur indicates that using ASL as the first language is helpful in developing the proficiency of English with deaf students. It also states that acquiring English is a lot easier for deaf students when they have the first language developed.

According to Wilbur, ASL does have the advantages in performance of cognitive, linguistic, and social skills. Another findings indicate that those deaf children with deaf parents, exposed to ASL, are advanced than deaf children with hearing parents in academic, literacy, English, social, and emotional development (Easterbrooks & Baker, 2002). Shawn Mahshie who is also another researcher had mentioned that children who do not have early first language competence may lack their cognitive and academic language proficiency to do well in school.

Mahshie who specifically quotes, “Sign Language is no longer regarded as a threat to the normal development of deaf children, but rather the best possible guarantee for normal development” (cited as Ahlgren in Mahshie, p. 15). Mahshie clearly emphasizes that the language access is the fundelmental key to developing English.

Another theory by Cummin from Freeman & Freeman, students are able to transfer to the second lanugauge when they are fluent in their first language. Chomsky also theorized that we are born with universal language that we can adapt. This too applies to the fact that, in general, deaf people are born with the natural language.

“The focus should be on the child’s education, which requires communication in a natural language, on which all advanced learning is built. Early knowledge of ASL is a critical part of the solution, not part of the problem” (Wilbur, 2000, p. 100).

Looking back throughout my childhood, teachers had used speech and signed English to develop my first language. I didn’t develop my English proficiency at that time. However, I did gain skills in speech where I could communicate verbally, but my English was nowhere near where I should have been. Majority of deaf students in my classes went through similar situation and they still weren’t able to develop their proficiency in English. It wasn’t until later that I started mainstreaming in regular classes with certified interpreters that used ASL. From that point on, I was able to pick up the concepts and structures of English throughout the classes. Since then, my English had improved dramatically. To this date, I do on occasionally struggle to find the right words to express in proper English. However when it comes to expressing in ASL, I find it liberating since it is my natural language.


  • Easterbrooks, S. & Baker, S. (2002). Language learning in children who are Deaf and hard of hearing: Multiple pathways. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  • Freeman, Y. S. & Freeman, D. E. (1998). ESL/EFL teaching: Principles for success. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Mahshie, S. (1997). A first language: Whose choice is it? Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Pre-College National Mission Programs.

About Longster

Long Duong works as a Web/UI Developer for cPanel in Houston. He is also the founder of ECHODE where he builds his web and designs musings on the side. He is the main guy for building and maintaining the life of Houston Deaf Network website.

3 responses to “Does ASL hinder development of English / Literacy?”

  1. Jean Boutcher says:

    Longster Duong asks:

    “Does ASL hinder development of English / Literacy?”

    My answer to your question is NO. Many deaf people were exposed to ASL have an easy time learning not only a second langage but also becoming bilingual or even trilingual. I know some deaf people who know five spoken languages and five sign languages. WFD (the World Federation of the Deaf) is a good place for you to meet multilingual deaf people in Europe.

    Spending hours day in and day out on AVT delays the child’s acquisition of language.

    That is pecisely why the NIH — after conducting a study –encourages hearing parents to expose sign language to BOTH hearing babies and deaf babies. Babies from age 0 are first exposed to visual channels and ignore parents’ voices. That is why cribs are full of colorful papers and toys without sound.

  2. Tami says:

    This is a good blog. Very well researched for not knowing much about language. Could you contact me via my email?

  3. Richard Roehm says:


    “Spending hours day in and day out on AVT delays the child’s acquisition of language.” might be correct in your years.

    Actually in these days it goes the other way. The landscape of AVT has changed greatly in the past 5 years. AVT nowadays support language development.


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