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35 years of Bilingual Deaf Education – and then?

Kristina Svartholm


In this article, an overview of the last 35 years of bilingual education for the deaf in Sweden is presented. A short presentation is given of the terms ‘first language/mother tongue’ and ‘second/foreign language’, used in this specific context, to debate some of the main assumptions underlying first and second language teaching to deaf children. We discuss the main results from the bilingual approach, demonstrating the high level of achievements when considered in an international perspective. These results are compared to data from the first period of deaf education in Sweden, after the foundation of the Manilla school in 1809. The common basis for these examples of successful deaf education can be summarized as a positive attitude to sign language and its users. Then, we analyze some differences between natural sign languages versus simultaneous use of signs and speech, wherein the deaf addressee usually receives inconsistent linguistic information, thus making this practice less appropriate for the language learner. A discussion follows up language teaching to deaf children, including teaching a third language to them, such as English, for example. It is noted that the group of sign language users is currently undergoing a great change, especially because of the growing number of children with cochlear implants: their need for bilingualism, including sign language, is emphasized.

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