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June 7, 2004

Hear me out: lamenting a silent language falling out of favour

From: Sydney Morning Herald, Australia - Jun 7, 2004

By Julie Robotham, Medical Editor June 7, 2004

Chevoy Brown will never forget her son's first word. At seven months, Jarrod reached out to her, opening and clenching his hand. He was saying "light" in Auslan - the sign language his parents had been using constantly around him since he had been diagnosed profoundly deaf a month earlier.

Ms Brown rejected the offer of a cochlear implant, concerned that if it failed to boost Jarrod's hearing sufficiently for him to acquire spoken English, he would miss crucial stages in language-related brain development that occur in early childhood.

Today, Ms Brown says, her conversations with the gregarious seven-year-old are every bit as sophisticated as those she had with her hearing daughter at the same age.

But Jarrod's first language could die out within half a generation, according to new analysis - a casualty of changing patterns of deafness and a trend towards deaf children attending mainstream schools.

Genes have already been identified for profound deafness and will be used in future to screen for affected embryos, reducing the natural incidence of deafness, says Trevor Johnston, a senior research fellow at Renwick College, the research arm of the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children. The virtual elimination of rubella in pregnancy and the control of many forms of childhood meningitis also means fewer deaf children than in the past. AdvertisementAdvertisement

"The population is smaller than we thought, and it is shrinking," said Associate Professor Johnston, who can hear but was brought up signing in an extended family of deaf relatives, including both parents.

More than half severely deaf babies in NSW now received a cochlear implant, he said. There was no reason why a child with the device should not also learn Auslan, but in practice "the majority of cochlear implantees don't have early sign language", said Associate Professor Johnston, who has won a University of London grant to document Auslan as an endangered language.

In one corner of Sydney, Auslan users are still innovating. Maree Madden, principal of Thomas Pattison School at North Rocks, where children can learn Auslan and English side by side, said: "The beauty is the way users exploit space. There are things fluent users can do that don't translate effectively - facial expressions or the placement of hands in space that are particularly funny or poignant."

Dr Madden said the biggest changes were in the playground: "I see the primary kids playing with their own signs. I say, 'What does that mean?' It cracks me up."

Copyright © 2004. The Sydney Morning Herald.