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kdpeters Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Aug-18-06 06:08 AM
Original message
Sign languages are rich, robust, and unquestionably as real as any spoken
As a hearing, irregular DU poster, I thought a long time before deciding to broach this topic. I did vote to establish this group, so I'll put this out there to see if anyone else is interested in discussing. I also thought a long time and repeatedly consulted DU FAQs before deciding how to reply to the linked post. Long story short, I'm doing it this way.

I have a sketchy history with Deaf Culture as I've gotten into some arguments with them with the following points:

1) ASL as a "real language": I can understand why Deaf people consider it a language but there are some examples that I think doesn't really make it a "real language." There's very few grammatical rules in ASL (no conjunctions, same sign for multiple words). I've taken a look at BSL and they've included connecting words in the sign language, much more grammar-friendly than ASL.

Sometimes it's hard to be tactful and accurate at the same time. When people are so confident and so wrong, we charitably call it ignorance when arrogance is more accurate. Neither would be considered complimentary, but ignorant is the best I can describe the words above within reasonable accuracy. I don't know if the original poster is reading, but I'd seriously like her to consider this question in good faith.

Though you say you don't know much ASL, and it's clear you haven't studied much about linguistics, how can you so confidently express that ASL isn't a real language and has few grammatical rules? Have you considered that your attitude might be part of the reason your history with the Deaf Community is so "sketchy".

Like opinions on global warming or choosing to be gay, some opinions about "real" languages are much more valid than others because they are informed and authoritative. Others are uninformed sophistry. There's a general consensus among linguists that signed languages are as real, as natural as spoken language much like climatologists generally agree global warming is real and mostly man-made. Consider what Noam Chomsky had to say about a new sign language in Nicaragua in this interview:

For a long time deafness was considered much like a disease, and they were isolated. Kept to themselves, there was no effort to teach them. Later, there were some efforts to improve their situation slightly, and it turned out that they had pretty quickly developed a sign language within the community.

Now that language has been investigated in considerable depth, and it appears to be just like any existing language. It has the same structural properties. The infants even babble in sign just like they babble in spoken language. There don't seem to be any detectable differences. It's just that the mode is different--sign and visual, instead of articulate and auditory.

If any don't understand why Chomsky's opinion on Linguistics would carry a great deal of weight, please wikipedia this brilliant man. For us laymen, there really isn't much to debate. I hope we can at least approach this topic accepting the reality and validity of signed languages as a given fact.

As a result, I've come across some ASL-user websites that are really hard to read due to the extremely bad grammar (they drop the following: the, and, but, etc

ASL is a visual language. As a result, many of its grammatical features are also visual and thus lost in textual representation. Spoken languages are necessarily linear because people can only say one word at a time. Visual languages, however, communicate in 3D and have the ability to simultaneously express grammatical features that those of us using Romantic or Germanic spoken languages can only accomplish using extra words and ordering them in a certain way. There are Native American and African spoken languages that communicate just swell without these features so there's no reason at all for a signed language to incorporate something so otherwise meaningless.

Similarly, your criticism that one sign is used for multiple words reveals both your bias toward your own preferred language as well as your ignorance of ASL's grammatical features. The classic example is the supposed "100 words for snow" in the language of the Inuit. Their experience with snow makes it necessary to differentiate between many different types undetectable by us south of the border who think snow is just snow. By your criteria, English isn't a real language because we use one word for multiple words in Inuit. That's just not how it works. Language describes concepts. If the concept doesn't exist, neither will the language to describe it. In English, 'mad' and 'angry' are different words, but the same concept. Why do you think sign inferior because it isn't as redundant as English? Then consider how 'cranky' and 'furious' represent the same concept but to different degrees. Yes, ASL may use the same base sign for 'angry' but much is communicated with emphasis and facial expression. ASL doesn't need or want to be a copy of English -- it is its own language and lacks nothing as a means for expression.

Sign languages don't "drop" the articles and conjunctions you list; they just have no use for them. One of the biggest differences between spoken and signed languages is the severe inefficiency of the former compared to the rich, robust efficiency of the latter. Stories are much better shared in sign. Written forms of spoken languages are like visualizing a line and drawing it on a page; it looks pretty much like the concept it represents. Written forms of signed languages, however, are like taking 3-dimensional solids and expressing them in one dimensional dots and lines. Of course it's difficult to understand when so much of the meaning is lost.

You can flame me if you want on this point, but I really truly believe that all deaf people should learn English (or the main language of their country) in order to get by in society. If they only learn ASL, they only can interact with other people who know ASL and that's not many people.

I can't understand why it should be controversial that any linguistic minority should attain a certain level of proficiency in the majority language. It seems obvious to me that multi-lingualism has exponentially more benefit than monolingualism. It also seem obvious that the best time to become bi- or multilingual is in those formative years between 3-5 when we're learning a couple hundred words each day. In my experience, what people usually mean, and what's unspoken here, is that deaf children should be deprived of a natural sign language as it might supposedly interfere with their motivation to speak, lipread, and generally struggle to act as if they can hear like us for our own comfort and convenience.

2) Is ASL going to die? I've had so many arguments with this point with passionate ASL-only users (or ASL and Cue users).

What's clear reading between the lines is that the issue is not so much if ASL 'will' die, but if ASL 'should' die. I can't imagine how anyone who respects and appreciates ASL for what it is could dispassionately argue its inevitable demise and lift not one finger to prevent it. Nor do I see how a neutral, un-invested third party would have "so many arguments" with passionate defenders. It seems to me you are actually an enemy of ASL and those who cherish this language are justifiably passionate in defending themselves against your attacks.

I hope I'm wrong, so if I am, please tell me how you support measures that burden the majority to adjust for the deaf child because right now, I only see how you think the deaf child should accept total responsibility for becoming acceptable to her parents, teachers, friends, and even total strangers.

There's some die hard ASL people who refuse to accept this change.

Better to burn out than to fade away!! ;)
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Lowell Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Aug-22-06 07:59 AM
Response to Original message
1. Thanks for the well thought out post kdpeters
I've been a lip reader for years and can hear some with my hearing aids. My son was deaf, now deceased, and a granddaughter is deaf. She is only five and starting to learn ASL in a school for deaf children. I decided that it was time for me to study it too, so I could communicate more fully with her. You are absolutely right about the dimensional differences between sign and spoken languages. It goes beyond words and sounds to facial expressions and body language.

I am convinced that yes, ASL is a real language. Those who say it is not don't sign and don't know what they are talking about.

Thanks for the well written and thought provoking post.
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kdpeters Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Aug-27-06 02:29 AM
Response to Reply #1
5. That's so wonderful you're learning ASL for your granddaughter
You must be a wonderful woman to have as a grandmother. I'm really touched. One day she will know just how special your gesture is and how few people are willing to make the effort. She will cherish it always.
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Lowell Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Aug-28-06 08:31 AM
Response to Reply #5
8. Ha! Thanks for the kudos
but I'm the grandfather! It is very important to me that I can communicate with my grandchildren. Bell, my deaf granddaughter, is a beautiful little girl and I'm bound and determined to see that she has every tool at hand to make it in this life.

I've been following this thread and have tried to understand the resistance to ASL and discover the other alternative sign languages I've read about here. I look forward to Bell starting her classes and I intend to contact her teachers and find out which system they are teaching her. That will be what I study.
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Hawkeye-X Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Aug-23-06 12:07 PM
Response to Original message
2. Beautifully written!
Edited on Wed Aug-23-06 12:07 PM by HawkeyeX
I'm an ASL user as well, since my wife is pure ASL, and I grew up orally deaf, didn't really start picking up ASL until I hit college (RIT/NTID), so I use it on a daily basis, and my mom also knows ASL from her work with the deaf community while I was growing up.

I certainly can understand the difficulties that ASL people go through. I tout my brother-in-law as an example. He took about 8 years to finish college with a AA degree because of his difficulties in understanding basic English. He has asked me a lot for my help in English.

I just am thankful that I have an English tutor and a wonderful mom. :)

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kdpeters Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Aug-27-06 04:53 AM
Response to Reply #2
6. Thanks
I certainly can understand the difficulties that ASL people go through. I tout my brother-in-law as an example. He took about 8 years to finish college with a AA degree because of his difficulties in understanding basic English. He has asked me a lot for my help in English.

ASL isn't the problem. I don't know your brother-in-law, so I can't speculate why he personally struggles. But it isn't ASL. Many deaf children have well meaning parents who are told by doctors and teachers that they shouldn't use signs and only communicate in English. Consequently, language acquisition is delayed and the greater degree of deafness, the less access they have to learn it. Early childhood years are crucial for language development. Young children easily pick up a second language from a grandparent, babysitter, or neighbor. Many parents intentionally speak to their children in other languages believing bilingualism to be beneficial. If we believe that, and I do, then it's time we realize that deaf children too will benefit if we promote bilingualism in ASL and English from early ages

But if those years are missed or squandered, language development is more difficult the longer it's delayed. We know from feral children that past a certain point, the ability to acquire any language is gone for good. Whereas, early language development in which one has full access, which means a visual language for deaf children, provides a strong foundation that can be built upon. That's why an adult can learn a second language though a feral child can't learn a first. It does require more effort from an adult than than child to attain fluency.

Some deaf children were only sent to deaf schools or taught to sign only because they 'failed' to learn from oral instruction they couldn't hear. By then, precious time has been wasted and the kid is blamed for the failure of the adults to meet his needs. Those same people who betrayed the deaf children they were supposed to teach cite their English proficiency as evidence of ASL's failures when it's really the failure of oral-only instruction. It will be more difficult to become skilled in either ASL or English. Sometimes in mainstream programs there's so much focus on speech, they're actually taken out of class for speech therapy. Is it really best for the child to be taken out of math class to learn to mimic sounds he can't hear? It happens more than you might think.

ASL can be acquired early and provide that strong foundation for language skill and then be used to teach English a little later. Most of us in America don't understand or appreciate the benefits of knowing more than one language. But if we support bilingualism from early ages, children can attain fluency in both. A large portion of Dutch citizens fluently speak Dutch, German, and American-accented English. Learning promotes more learning. It's time we shed the ill-conceived notion that signed languages are a barrier to understanding the majority language.

I just am thankful that I have an English tutor and a wonderful mom. :)

Oh, I'll never again use the proper tense of "lie/lay/have lain" without remembering my grandmother constantly correcting my grammar. It's certainly important to have someone who's invested in your success.
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Hawkeye-X Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Aug-29-06 01:15 PM
Response to Reply #6
9. True, but ASL use a entirely different grammar structure
Object, Subject Verb is the ASL version.

English language usually uses Subject Verb Object..

I don't blame ASL entirely for the difficulties that many deaf people go through. Some go through life without learning proper English, such as my wife and brother-in-law. I had to retrain my wife to learn to write proper English. She still messes up now and then but she's doing much better.

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FunkyLeprechaun Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Aug-23-06 05:00 PM
Response to Original message
3. Like I said in that post
That you quoted... I do advocate a deaf person learning the language (or main language) of their country FIRST before doing the sign language. I've met some mainstream BSL-ers who advocate this position. However, I had some ASL-only friends (of whom I communicated with via an interpreter) who advocated learning ASL BEFORE learning English.

I do agree that it is an extremely visual language. But it's a language that won't last much longer due to the trends in deaf issues. I was born profoundly deaf in 1981 and my parents were advised to use ASL but they didn't due to the language issue.

I really am glad that ASL wasn't my first language. Sure it's very visual but it sure as hell doesn't help with the English language.
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kdpeters Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Aug-26-06 07:19 AM
Response to Reply #3
4. The thing is, it doesn't have to be either ASL or English, it can be both
I really am glad that ASL wasn't my first language. Sure it's very visual but it sure as hell doesn't help with the English language.

Once again, you state with conviction what contradicts evidence in recent research. Early access to visual/manual communication seems to support fluency in English in both deaf and hearing children. In fact, there's a growing trend to teach hearing children to communicate in signs because the capacity for language and communication develops many months before we develop the ability to verbalize. An infant can communicate with simple hand gestures long before she can form the spoken words. Research so far tends to show that hearing children who learn to sign as infants generally start communicating with parents around six months, as early as 6 weeks, though they generally begin speaking at the same time as any other baby. The difference, however, is that those who've been taught to communicate in signs start speaking with a much larger vocabulary, and in relatively complex thought, learning words for existing concepts while those who begin communicating at the point they can verbalize start with one or two and build vocabulary much slower in the beginning. Additionally, children who can communicate earlier tend to show less frustration and greater bonding as they're better able to express their needs and parents are better able to understand them. Far from being detrimental or ineffectual, signing at earlier ages seems to provide a head start to these children long into childhood years.

I would tend to agree children should learn ASL before English -- hearing or deaf -- both seem to benefit from early access to language.

it's a language that won't last much longer due to the trends in deaf issues.

Cochlear implants seem to have decimated the number of people unable to get by in the hearing world. I volunteered for an after school program for deaf children in an elementary class. It was a small group; all of them poor and/or special needs. Should ASL soon die as you seem to wish, it will be the most vulnerable among us left even further isolated and forgotten. What would you do for them?

Fortunately there's a counter-trend in growing interest and appreciation among hearing people and a growing awareness that early use of sign language is actually beneficial for a child's development. Cochlear implants have made a dramatic impact, but social awareness of deaf issues could give parents a choice generally withheld by audiologists, surgeons, and medical supply corporations --- I have to wonder if these 'caregivers' would be so concerned about this child's ability to integrate if she didn't have the ability to pay.
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FunkyLeprechaun Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Aug-27-06 02:35 PM
Response to Reply #4
7. asdf
Show me those studies that show ASL improves English. You might be confusing ASL with SEE, which is the sign language that matches English word for word. I know someone who used SEE and never ever used ASL and he had better English than ASL-only users. They are two completely different methods, although SEE takes some elements of ASL. However, nothing compares to learning how to read, write, and even speak.

That's one aspect of Deaf Culture I do not like, the fear that no "new" ASL people would be around. It is true, and don't deny this, that ASL and even Cued Speech will only be used among those who know how to use them.

That's the trend that's going on. As a deaf person that's been both in Deaf Culture and Mainstream, I do know what the trends are. And believe me, the decline in deaf ASL usage is happening right now. Shame that you're denying the inevitable.
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demobabe Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Sep-10-06 03:11 AM
Response to Original message
10. ASL will NOT die, and I'll tell you why
Both my husband and I have been learning as much ASL as we possibly can.

Neither of us is Deaf or hard of hearing.

BUT, we have an infant (now 20 months old) who hasn't really begun to speak much yet. But he's been learning sign language and can communicate with us in some pretty amazing ways. He can hear perfectly fine, too.

Yesterday he walked up to me and signed SHOES WALK CAR BYE-BYE. In other words, he was asking to put on his shoes and go for a walk or ride in the car and go somewhere (go bye-bye).

At dinner, he was pointing at his finger, and then I looked at my fried rice, and realized he was making the sign for PEAS and then he picked a pea out of the rice. Additionally, he made the sign for HOT, and said "OT!" as he realized the food was hot. Really cute.

There is a huge movement to teach ASL to infants and toddlers and it is helping ot virtually eliminate the terrible twos. Additionally, babies who learn to sign first have a foundation for learning English and learn faster as a result. Some folks think that kids who learn to sign first will avoid talking, but this is not true - just the opposite. Now my son has learned and uses many signs, we're getting him to say some of these words.

And all of this was made possible by one resource which we stumbled upon: Signing Time! videos by Rachel Coleman. PBS airs a video every week in my area, and many PBS stations are now airing the program. You can find out all the details at

If you haven't heard of or seen these videos, these are a FANTASTIC resource for ANYBODY who would like an introduction to sign language.

They're videos for kids with songs and animations, but she's written a zillion songs so you can practice the signs, and it's extremely fun to watch these and learn, no matter what age you are.

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FunkyLeprechaun Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Sep-13-06 04:59 AM
Response to Reply #10
11. It will die
The difference between giving a hearing child ASL and a deaf child ASL is the child is HEARING and thus hears the English accompanying the ASL. The average deaf child isn't given access to English until 6 years old.

I really don't advocate teaching a hearing child ASL and I would like to see the studies (yet to see a link here). It is a very simple method of communication. There are plenty of Deaf Culture people who consider English a "hearing value" which leads to the lack of access to the English language.

As a result the majority of Deaf people struggle with English, as shown in this article: . This article was formerly published on CNN in 2004.

I am a deaf Cuer. When I was in 3rd grade, I read at a Post High School level, surpassing my hearing peers (the average they read at was a 6th to 8th grade reading level) in that grade. A good example of Cued Speech helping a deaf child with access of English can be seen here:

Jeff is a deaf adult who has used cued speech since he was 8 years old. Prior to that, he used the Oral-only method. 3 months of using Cued Speech (at 8 years old) shows how delayed his language was:

After 3 years of using Cued Speech:

I've seen similar experiences from my friends before they started Cued Speech. I was the same way, starting out with Oralism before starting Cued Speech at 2 years old. ASL is a hindrance to the deaf's access of English, so is Oralism. I advocate the use of Cued Speech plus Cochlear Implantation.

ASL may work for Hearing children BECAUSE they have the access to the English language as well. The deaf don't and, unless English is presented to them visually (via Cued Speech), ASL won't work for them in the long run.

Your hearing child will have the opportunity to go out in the world when s/he is an adult. An ASL-only deaf adult will have only limited opportunities in the world.
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demobabe Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Sep-20-06 04:55 PM
Response to Reply #11
12. The point is communication
What you're saying in your post is a totally different (but important) point than whether ASL will "die" or not. You are coming from a different direction than me: I am getting that your concern is to be able to understand and access English fully instead of ending up grammatically constructing sentences like Yoda. And that's important to be functional in society.

But where I'm coming from is that I've got a hearing 20 month old that is speech delayed, and ASL is allowing him to communicate and is also helping him learn the English words. We'll play with a ball, sign ball, and he'll say something like "bowww". He can't form the English words to talk to me yet, and we started ASL after he wasn't using any language at all, not even the ma-ma da-da hearing babies typically do at 9-12 months of age. He has a sign language vocabulary of around 75 words at this point, which is many more words than an average 20 month old speaks.

ASL and Cued Speech are both tools towards communication - which is the point. Sure, some things work better than others and I can imagine a Cochlear Implant would be great.

But for us, it's a huge milestone for our baby to be able to tell us that he specifically wants milk, water, or a drink. Or he can tell us that he's hurt, and where it hurts or that something is too hot - bath, food, sidewalk. Otherwise the communication would be limited to a very small person looking concerned, and whining or crying. For us, this is amazing.

You wanted a study about ASL being helpful, here is one:

A study of 140 families funded by the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development showed that hearing children who were exposed to signing (in addition to speech) as babies have IQ scores averaging 12 points higher than the scores of the control group that didn't have additional language input. Increased language acquisition results in a measurable increase in intelligence.

That is from

And if you want a whole slew of studies and benefits for teaching children ASL, you can find it in this PDF:

But I completely undestand what you're saying. Our baby will eventually learn English, and signs will most likely fall to the side. But like I said, it's a tool that's very helpful to us. Every tool has it's limits; you wouldn't use a hammer on everything. Even English itself is limited - it is also a tool.
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FunkyLeprechaun Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Sep-22-06 03:29 AM
Response to Reply #12
13. Thanks!
That was what I was asking for. I don't necessarily agree with ASL for the Deaf (that was my original intent of my postings here) but, like I said, your hearing child has access to the English language as well as ASL.

However, I was wondering how well a hearing child read English after immersion in ASL. IQ tests are mainly visual, I had the highest score in a psychology class (in high school) I was getting a grade of B in. As a deaf person, I really do well with visual cues, which is why I did so well in an IQ test, beating the straight-A students.

If an IQ test was presented in a written form (like the SAT's Analogue Questions), I can guarantee you a deaf person with ASL only immersion will do badly, as the signs are very limited. They may not know what pulchritudinous means but they'll know beautiful. Beautiful and pulchritudinous have the same meaning but only one sign and they are taught that this sign means "beautiful" not "pulchritudinous" or even "gorgeous".

It is imperative that you don't use ASL, but rather the other form of English sign language, called SEE. It may seem like a long slog compared to ASL, but it is proven that deaf people with SEE immersion do fairly better at English comprehension compared to ASL immersion.

Thank you for the information, I am not looking to pick a fight here. I am a strong advocate of giving deaf children access to literacy. If ASL helps hearing people then maybe it's a useful tool for them. As I said, if any tool helps deaf people (Cued Speech, Cochlear Implants) then it's good to seize the opportunity, like you with ASL for your hearing child.
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demobabe Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Sep-24-06 03:49 AM
Response to Reply #13
14. I am learning from you
Well, I didn't even know what pulchritudinous meant! But since I know the sign for beautiful, now I'll know how to sign pulchritudinous! :)

I see what you're saying. I never thought about the whole issue in the way you frame it. As a hearing person, it isn't an issue because ASL isn't the primary form of communication. I can imagine it would be pretty difficult to go from ASL to English as a Deaf person, not ever having heard the meter and beat of speaking. ASL seems to have it's own flow which doesn't transfer to written word so well - like you showed from your links from your previous post.

Because a hearing child listens to language from birth, I would imagine ASL might help some in kids learning to read by having a sign to go along with many of the words they would learn to read (reinforcement). Hearing kids learn to sound out consonants and vowels, then learn what letters make which sounds, and then sound out the words and read. It would probably be hard to know if ASL has any effect on hearing kids' reading abilities because it would be so secondary to hearing and sounding out words. Having heard spoken language since birth really makes a difference in kids understanding grammar and how to construct sentences.

My pediatrician told us that by 9 months old, language is pretty well set in the baby's brain. They tell me that babies need to start speaking by about 12-15 months as the speech center of the brain is developing at that time. If a baby isn't speaking by then, it is possible that speech won't develop - or that it will be a lot harder.

Thank you so much for your post - I think we're both saying mostly the same thing - use all the tools you can to help you learn. It totally makes sense that ASL alone would be limiting. You give me a lot to think about. I just take hearing for granted, and this forum is a complete eye-opener to me. :)
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liberalhistorian Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Oct-21-06 02:18 PM
Response to Original message
15. I totally agree that sign languages should be
considered as much a language as spoken ones. I started learning ASL several years ago as my sensorineaural hearing loss is getting progressively worse and was surprised at its richness and detail. I'm terrible at languages, any languages, but hopefully I'll get a little better at as time goes on.
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FunkyLeprechaun Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Dec-28-06 11:42 AM
Response to Reply #15
16. I don't want to be rash and quickly suggest
CIs due to most americans having a lack of med insurance.

Why don't you get some CIs? It would help you so much. It's better than learning another language. From what people have told me, CIs has restored their "hearing" (still deaf when they take them off).

Sure, rarely do they not work but the newer CIs have a higher success rate than the first CIs. They have smaller surgeries and sometimes same-day (my first CI at 16 forced an overnight stay and my second CI at 24 was same-day and I had a glass of wine afterwards!). I don't know what's up with the people here learning ASL when there's a better solution out there.
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