What is Language Deprivation Syndrome in Deaf Children?

Young child signing play while facing a man with hearing aids

Language Deprivation Syndrome is one of the greatest developmental threats to Deaf and hard of hearing children today. Language deprivation occurs when a child does not have adequate access to language during the critical period of language acquisition, resulting in neurological changes in the brain which are associated with negative, long term consequences. Language deprivation is thought to be one of the leading causes of behavioral health challenges among deaf children. 

It’s important to understand that language deprivation can cause a syndrome to develop during childhood, but it’s not limited to that age group. Deaf adults may experience language deprivation regularly as well. This underscores the importance of providing language support and intervention as early as possible to minimize the negative impact of language deprivation.

Language Deprivation Syndrome is not unique to Deaf people. Language Deprivation Syndrome is a condition that can affect both Deaf and hearing individuals who experience a lack of language exposure during their early years, and it can have severe consequences. However, while language deprivation in hearing children is usually the result of neglect or abuse, such as in the case of “Genie,” it is prevalent in Deaf children, even with the best intentions and efforts to provide them with a strong first language (Hall, Levin & Anderson, 2017).

It’s essential to understand that language deprivation can have long-term and pervasive effects on an individual’s language development and cognitive abilities. This is why we need to take steps to ensure that all children, regardless of their hearing status, have access to language from an early age. One of the easiest ways to guarantee language exposure is to use sign language.

What are the causes of language deprivation in Deaf children?

Language Deprivation Syndrome is caused by chronic inadequate access to language during the critical period of language development (approximately birth to 5 years old). The brain does not care if it is exposed to sign language or spoken language… it simply needs accessible language input. Without enough accessible language, the child’s brain development is harmed to the extent that the child “may be unable to develop language skills sufficient to support fluent communication or serve as a basis for further learning” (Lederberg, Shick & Spencer, 2013). 

Although families are often told that using cochlear implants or hearing aids will provide their child with total access to spoken language, that is only the case if the device works well for them and if the child is wearing their cochlear implant or hearing aid. Although cochlear implants “provide an advantage for spoken language development, [but does not] assure development of spoken language in the normal range for all children by school age…” (Tobey et. al, 2013). In other words, no amount of technology is enough to guarantee natural language acquisition. 

In order to benefit from hearing assistive technology, children with cochlear implants or hearing aids must wear their devices for virtually all waking hours. Easier said than done — as any parent of a deaf infant or toddler knows, keeping the hearing aid or cochlear implant on their head can be quite a challenge! And what if the device dies or is broken? Thousands and thousands of practice opportunities to learn language are simply lost. According to language deprivation expert psychologist Wyatt Hall, parents and professionals must be aware that “the cochlear implant is currently unreliable as a standalone first-language intervention for the deaf child” (Hall, 2017).

What are the effects of language deprivation in Deaf children?

Language Dysfluency

Language dysfluency is when a person is not fluent in their “best” language. Language dysfluency in Deaf individuals can manifest in different ways, depending on the person’s language experience and communication mode. Some common signs of dysfluency may include:

  1. Limited vocabulary: Dysfluency can result in limited vocabulary use, making it difficult for individuals to express their thoughts and ideas effectively.
  2. Grammatical errors: Individuals with dysfluency may struggle with grammar, leading to incorrect word order, missing words, or other errors that can affect the clarity of their message.
  3. Difficulty with sign production: Dysfluency can also affect sign production, leading to hesitation, repetition, or incorrect signing.
  4. Difficulty with spoken word production: Dysfluency can affect how a person speaks, resulting in words which do not sound correct, are used incorrectly or stuttering.
  5. Difficulty with turn-taking: Individuals with dysfluency may have difficulty taking turns in conversations, leading to interruptions, misunderstandings, or frustration.
  6. Use of filler words: Dysfluency can also result in the overuse of filler words such as “um,” “uh,” or “like” to compensate for difficulties in expressing oneself.

It’s important to note that dysfluency in Deaf individuals can be caused by a variety of factors, including language deprivation, neurological deficits, life events, and mental illness. Many Deaf people struggle with learning English or written languages due to this incomplete level of early language exposure. This is part of why simply writing back and forth or adding captioning may not result in total access for a Deaf person. 

Deficits in Knowledge

This is sometimes called a “fund of information deficit” or “fund of knowledge deficit”. If the environment is not accessible to deaf people, they cannot pick up incidental information around them. This includes “passive knowledge” that hearing children naturally acquire from overhearing their parents, the radio, television and other ways. This is sometimes called “dinner table syndrome” which is when Deaf and hard of hearing children are frequently left out of conversations with hearing people. Hall describes this as “consistent lack of exposure to everyday opportunities likely results in an overall loss of understanding of how many aspects of society function, such as school interactions, government functions, healthy personal behaviors, and many others” (Hall, 2017).

Disruptions in Thinking, Mood, and/or Behavior

To be clear, deafness does not cause disruptions in thinking, mood and/or behavior. A child who has language from birth does not develop these symptoms from lack of exposure to language. All behavior is communication, and how else will deaf kids communicate if they have not been exposed to language? The effects of early language deprivation are long lasting. This appears to severely raise the risk for psychiatric issues compared to the general population.

What can we do about language deprivation?

Join us for a workshop with Zaineb Abdulla addressing the issue of language deprivation by implementing behavior analytic tools to foster long-term language growth. 

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