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Deaf toddlers benefit from consistently learning two languages

19 November 2009

Many deaf children in the Netherlands are raised bilingually. In addition to learning to use the Dutch sign language (NGT – Nederlandse Gebarentaal), they also learn Dutch, often supported by signing (NmG –Nederlands ondersteund met Gebaren). Is becoming bilingual achievable? Yes, but not always, nor for every child, nor for all parents, concludes Nini Hoiting in her research into toddlers learning sign language. Children who have learned sign language (NGT) have a natural language and start off with a larger sign vocabulary than children who are mainly taught sign-assisted Dutch (NmG). Hoiting will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 30 November.

Hoiting distinguishes three groups of deaf children in her research – children who learn NGT from deaf parents, children who learn NGT from hearing parents and children who learn NmG from hearing parents. Hoiting: ‘Deaf children focus particularly on movement and therefore have a stronger interest in verbs than hearing children do. Dutch hearing children focus more on nouns at first.’

Second language

Bilingualism is generally encouraged, Hoiting noticed. She feels it would be a good idea to have a marked distinction between NGT and Dutch in schools. Deaf children who know both languages well have a head start on children who muddle between Dutch and NmG.

A vocabulary of signs or of words?

However, the choice between NGT and NmG as the main teaching language isn’t straightforward. The obvious choice would be Dutch sign language as it is a real, complete language. Learning Dutch via NmG means many words in a sentence are not given in signs. Hoiting’s research shows that children who have learned NGT have a larger sign vocabulary than NmG children do. Children with deaf parents in particular develop language most fully.

Complex verbs

‘We still know too little about the development of two languages in young, deaf children to adjust schooling in time’, says Hoiting.  Learning complex verb constructions in NGT is extremely demanding for toddlers since facial expressions and the direction they look are also very important. Dutch, on the other hand, has complicated rules concerning word order.

Social development

Hoiting: ‘’Having a language is key to social development. It means you always have something you can rely on.’ The importance of the latter has increased markedly since cochlear implants have become popular – electrodes in the ear that make hearing possible again, to whatever extent. The sooner it’s implanted, the greater the effect in most cases. Hoiting: ‘Unfortunately, the outcome is unpredictable and isn’t always as successful as hoped. Consistently learning a complete sign language in addition to Dutch decreases the risk of social isolation should the implant not prove as successful as was hoped. Beginning a discussion about this in the medical world is therefore of vital importance.’

Curriculum vitae

Nini Hoiting studied linguistics and since 1983 has worked as a linguist at Koninklijke KENTALIS (formerly the H.D. Guyot Institute for the Deaf). She specializes in Dutch sign language (NGT) and bilingual teaching for deaf children. Her thesis is entitled De Mythe van Simplisme: Gebarentaalverwerving door Nederlandse Dove Peuters. [The Simplism Myth: Sign Language Acquisition by Deaf Dutch Children].

Note for the press

More information: Nini Hoiting, tel. (050) 533 19 13, e-mail: JFA.Hoiting

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.27 p.m.
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