Teaching English to deaf students – part 1

The task of teaching a foreign language (therefore, a third language) for the deaf seems to be a question that can be postponed. As we know, many difficulties have already been identified concerning the teaching of first and second languages.

Nevertheless, the history of deaf education shows that in sixteenth-century Spain the monk Pedro Ponce de León taught four deaf noble children to speak Greek, Latin and Italian. Therefore, it’s not difficult to imagine that this possibility may be repeated more often nowadays. We have more information, technologies and more enlightening studies to do so.

Regarding the possibility of learning English, I believe that either the deaf have the opportunity to better understand their own language and Portuguese during their time at school, or they may even have more difficulty. A study which was submitted to the Committee for Research Ethics at Universidade Católica de Pernambuco showed the case of a deaf girl who was not able to keep up with her classmates in the English classes because she lacked fluency in both  Brazilian Sign Language (Libras) and Portuguese.

Let us bear in mind that Brazilian deaf people have Libras as L1, which is visual-spatial. In this case, having some experience with writing in the L2, an auditory-oral language which uses the Latin alphabet, can facilitate the work of the educator, who may be only concerned with focusing on a (more) “effective” methodology, thus, leaving aside concerns with the time it takes their student to become familiar with the alphabet and, in many cases, the teaching of different text genres.

As an English teacher, I have had the opportunity to teach deaf students several times and the results were amazing. Those who had a sound understanding of their own language and at least an intermediate level of Portuguese were able to learn and convey clear messages in English.

So, contrary to some expectations that circulate in society when it comes to learning a foreign language, we should give the deaf a chance to learn it. The deaf are able to do so provided that certain conditions are respected – which will be discussed on the next post on August 16th. The first condition, though, is now known by you: they should have some fluency in L1 and L2.



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Antonio Coutelo

Antonio Coutelo - Graduated in Portuguese and English Languages by the Catholic University of Pernambuco (2009), holds an MSc degree in Language from the Catholic University of Pernambuco (2012) and is now pursuing his doctoral degree. He currently lectures at the Catholic University of Pernambuco and researches the following subjects: foreign language, English, deaf, teaching-learning and Brazilian Sign Language.

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