I have struggled with this “parental codeswitching” issue. You may wonder “codeswitching”? What is this? It has to do with communication switch – this is common among bilingual families. Oftentimes the mother language is the language the family speaks while the community/society speaks another language. Bilingual (or multilingual) families are common in Europe, but not so here in America because of the American “Dream”.
There are no true monolingual countries out there, even if you may have either a dominant or official language, there are going to be regional differences and creole languages. We will agree that communication is essential in whichever language is being used at the home while acknowledging what is being used out there in society.
So back to point, parental codeswitching. How relevant is this to me as a parent and a multi community participator? I am a parent who is deaf and I have two children, one hearing and one hard of hearing. Ninety percent of deaf parents have hearing children. A true bilingual family is where parents have accepted two languages and cultures and incorporated that into their home with little or no difficulty, meaning that whomever we are in the family, there are respect towards both.
A true bilingual is rare here in America. Deaf people from hearing families often are confused between both languages and cultures because of the pressure from both to become a part – being monolingual/cultural. The pressure is heaviest when it comes from the ‘hearing’ side because of conformity issues. This is carried down to the next generation – where codeswitching happens heavily.
A hearing child is born to deaf parents – often the parents are relieved when their child is identified to be hearing. My view is that from day one – ‘hearing’ becomes a dominant character for the child, the same as ‘deaf’ becoming dominant in an all-hearing family.
So codeswitching happens when the family decides to go one way with the children and another way with themselves. In this case, Signed English/Spoken English/Simultaneous Communication (even when a large percent of parents do not speak that well) for the children, while the parents stick with ASL/advanced Signed English (quicker and more fluid than the usual Signed English taught/used in schools) for themselves.
This I have seen beforehand does more harm to the family than benefits them. Yes the children are hearing, yet… they are my/your children. Being a child – a human child needs to be foremost, not secondary. Separating the two languages between parents and children causes miscommunication and frustration levels to go up.
You may think… hey what about the research out there, which talks about the benefits of baby signs and basic sign language. Key words here – baby and basic. They do not encourage higher language function that children acquire as they grow older, becoming teens and adults themselves. Baby and basic signs do not have adequate linguistic structure or grammar which are applicable when the family dynamics begin to change as the children grow older.
Placing two languages in the same communication process further diminishes the capability of a full language acquisition and application as individual languages. A story here: A friend shared with me the communication frustration between her son and her husband. Typically they communicate in simultaneous communication – sign and speaking at the same time. I encouraged her to tell her husband to pick one language and communicate in that only, since her husband is deaf, signing would be effective (have you ever tried lipreading children?) but it is his choice. That was continued to be reinforced, then a couple of months later, my friend mentioned that the guys were communicating better. I asked how that was being done. The guys are sports freaks so comparing before and now, when they sign the son is able to share more information with the father, giving out elaborated and detailed information than when signing and speaking at the same time.
Yes, the children are hearing (or deaf), just don’t make them suffer segregation of languages based on that. They need parental support and clear communication lines from day one. They are babies and they will be adults. Language gets complicated when one gets older, so baby and basic signs only go so far.
Mothers and children have the stable communication groundwork. Fathers are men by nature and communicate differently from mothers. That does not mean fathers are excused from not communicating with their children. This is where another situation came into place: a daughter speaks to someone (ignorant about deaf and family dynamics with deaf-hearing) about an issue that was going on with her father. That someone called the police and took the daughter out of the house. The basic issue was communication between the father and the daughter – language and teenage issues that the someone did not understand. The father went to jail and now the daughter is not on speaking terms with the family. That hurts, it does.
I may have sounded mean when I told my in-laws to stop speaking and signing at the same time to my children or be mean to my friends’ children when I sign only to them. I am only thinking of the children’s well being as humans and as bilingual speakers. What I do now, I believe will give them linguistic/cultural foundation as they get older.
In a healthy hearing parent-deaf child relationship, where the child is treated as a child with needs to be met and communication is all over the place, not limited to one language – the better chance of a healthy relationship between a deaf parent and a hearing child. I am fortunate that I have been surrounded by family, friends and teachers who saw me for who I am and that has allowed me to see my children for who they are and can be.