This paper provides an overview of the research into deaf children’s bilingualism and bilingual education through a synthesis of published studies over the last 15 years. The practice of educating deaf children bilingually through the use of sign language alongside written and spoken language initially developed during the 1980s in Scandanavia, the USA and the UK. This approach developed as a response to concerns about deaf children’s attainments within traditional spoken language approaches and research demonstrating sign languages to be naturally evolving rule-governed languages.
There is no one globally agreed-upon definition for the bilingual education of deaf children. However, there is a common philosophy and an underlying set of principles which do traverse countries and cultures. Philosophically, bilingual education strives towards the humanitarian and democratic goals of social inclusion and diversity. It is an approach to education that recognises the unique and distinctive features of deaf language and culture, validates the linguistic and cultural choices of deaf people and celebrates this diversity. The central tenet of this approach is that access from birth to a language for learning and development is the right of every child and that delay in language development is never acceptable.
This review brings together research in bimodal bilingual language development and educational practice to synthesise key issues for future research. The timeliness of this review relates to the changing climate of deaf education and the need to re-consider the goals and implementation of a bilingual approach. The reasons for this are firstly, that deaf children’s contexts for learning are changing as access to inclusive educational provision is afforded by new and developing hearing technologies. Further, new audiological technologies have had a significant impact on deaf children’s language experience and use. Specifically, digital hearing aid technology and cochlear implants have improved deaf children’s potential for spoken language development, and Universal Newborn Hearing Screening secures access to these technologies and early intervention programmes from birth. The success of these audiological advances and enhanced access to spoken language has changed the language and communication potential, and profiles of deaf children.
This review provides some directions for the development of a new theoretical model of bimodal bilingualism and deafness that recognises the multilingual and multimodal communicative resources of individuals as flexible and changing language repertoires. This represents a shift in perspective and the emergence of new constructs in deaf bimodal bilingualism, and discourses in the research and in the classroom.