The Course of Normal Language Acquisition
What is a Language Disorder?
Language Acquisition in Deaf Children
Problems of Sign Language Acquisition in Deaf Children
Problems in Reading and Writing
Language acquisition has been studied for a long time, but it is not completely understood yet. Charles Darwin may have been the first to examine the development of a first language and he assumed that humans have an instinct to learn language. Later on this idea was replaced by the notion that the acquisition of language is a sociocultural phenomenon. In the early 1960s the linguist Chomsky presented a new explanation: he said that children learn a language in the same way, for example, as they learn to walk upright, because it is part of their nature and not because it is a form of their culture. Thus language acquisition has a natural course of development. If this theory is absolutely right or not is still being argued but shall not be the prior topic of this paper. This work shall examine what happens if children are hearing impaired. Are they able to follow the usual process of language acquisition or not.
The Course of Normal Language Acquisition
In order to assess the consequences of language acquisition affected by physical disability, one has to consider a ‘general’ process of language development first. There are various factors which have an influence on a child’s process of language acquisition. How large the impact of a specific factor is varies from theory to theory. Nevertheless, linguists agree that the “grammatical structure, the possible innate language acquisition mechanisms or biases as well as the biological or cognitive maturational factors and the nature of the language input to the child and the social context in which it takes place” influence a child’s language development. No matter which factor has the most impressive impact on a child’s speech progress, by the age of four years he or she usually has a good command of the basic vocabulary, syntax and phonology. This language proficiency is found in all healthy children all over the world.
In order to be able to discuss language acquisition in children who are hearing impaired we first have to consider what is meant by language first. Language is a broad term which has to be distinguished into different subcategories in order to avoid confusion. The linguists Woll and Kyle distinguish between “language itself, speech, verbal communication, talk and linguistic communication”.
At the age of just a few months a baby is able to produce numerous different sounds. These are the product of hard articulation exercises and attempts to coordinate breathing. As we will see later on, this cooing and crying is so universal that it is even made by deaf children.
After a few months, the baby reaches the next level of language acquisition: babbling. Babbling often sounds somewhat like the language the child grows up with. The baby produces vowels and consonant-vowel syllables like ‘a’, ‘u’ or ‘ma’ ‘pa’, which may sound like real speech, due to the featured intonation patterns. This effect is intensified the older the child gets and by the age of about six months a baby’s language starts to sound like the language he is exposed with. At the age of ten or eleven months a child is able to use declarative, question and exclamatory intonation patterns and therefore sounds like producing pseudo sentences. At this specific age an average child also utters his first word. These first words function not only to name something, but also to request an object or person, the mother for example, or to emphasize actions. Thus they are used to express complex situations. These one-words utterances, which are used to express whole situations, are called holophrastic utterances.
At the age of about eighteen months a child starts to produce two- and three-word utterances. Now children are also able to use their language to warn, refuse, brag, answer and inform. These abilities show that cognitive development is far more advanced than the child’s language might indicate. It is also characteristic for this speech level that children prefer the word classes which carry information, like nouns, verbs and adjectives to grammatical morphemes. Indeed, a child uses the present progressive, prepositions and the regular plural a lot earlier than those grammatical morphemes.
A child of about two years begins to form complex structures like negations, questions and relative clauses. An average child needs about six months to acquire these abilities and passes through three periods. First, the child begins to put the function word, like the negation, at the front of the utterance. Later on the child uses this marker within the utterance, though the short sentences are still of a simple nature. Finally, the child begins to have a notion of the grammatical structures and rules and is capable of their usage.
While still having troubles with passives and other complex grammatical structures, a child of about four or five years is able to master most of his language. It will take the child another four or five years to acquire all these complex rules and structures and to use them perfectly.
What is a Language Disorder?
As there are two main and many prior approaches to define a language disorder the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) has formulated a general characterization:
A language disorder is the abnormal acquisition, comprehension or expression of spoken or written language. The disorder may involve all, one, or some of the phonologic, morphologic, semantic, syntactic, or pragmatic components of the linguistic system. Individuals with language disorders frequently have problems in sentence processing or in abstracting information meaningfully for storage and retrieval from short and long term memory. (ASHA, 1980, pp. 317-18).
This is a general definition of all the problems children may have when learning a language. Nevertheless, each child has his or her own unique abilities or deficits. It is important to note that language disorders in children often come along with abnormal cognitive and/or social behaviours. Thus linguists examine the differences and common features that children with language disorders have. A careful description is needed to be able to devise adequate therapies. For this purpose it is also crucial that the environment a child lives in and his physical status and motor abilities are taken into consideration.
As there are many varieties of language acquisition disorders, this paper will focus only on hearing impaired children in order to be able to give more detailed information. Furthermore, the still circulating myth that deafness goes along with dumbness will be revealed as false as well as the beliefe that a deaf child’s language acquisition automatically goes along with a language disorder.
In order to be able to analyse and describe sign language, the general characteristics of it have to be explained first.
The innate and acquired patterns, which build an abstract concept and allow the people to interact, are described by language. This can happen whether by words or by signs. Speech is a rather biological term which portrays the motor skills of the oral muscles, which in turn are responsible for the fact that we can express our verbal and linguistic knowledge. When this happens on the visual/manual level it is termed ‘sign language’. Spoken or signed language is known as verbal knowledge or communication. The antonym non-verbal communication is used for language which happens without linguistic knowledge.
 Gopnik, Myrna, The Inheritance and Innates of Grammars, (New York, 1997), p. 3.
 De Villiers, Jill, de Villiers, Peter, Hoban, Esme, “The Central Problem of Functional Categories in the English Syntax of Oral Deaf Children”, in: Constraints on Language Acquisition – Studies of Atypical Children, ed. by Helen Tager-Flusberg, (New Jersey, 1994), pp. 9-47, p.9.
 Kyle, Woll, Sign Language, p.59.
 Steinberg, Danny D., An Introduction to Psycholinguistics, (London, 1993), pp. 3-16.
 Bernstein, Deena K., “The Nature of Language and Its Disorders”, in: Language and Communication Disorders in Children, ed. by Deena K. Ross, Ellenmorris Tiegerman, (New York, 1985), pp. 2-23, p. 3.
 James, Sharon, „Assessing Children With Language Disorders“, in: : Language and Communication Disorders in Children, ed. by Deena K. Ross, Ellenmorris Tiegerman, (New York, 1985), pp. 185-228, p. 186f.
 Kyle, J.G., Woll, B., Sign Language – The study of deaf people and their language, (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 25-28.