Sign Language vs Oralism

When you scroll through your various social media feeds, you are likely to come across some banal, mundane, and even interesting articles or comments. As I was scrolling through my personal Facebook feed a while ago, I came across a post from British Deaf News that struck me by surprise. Of course, I had to click on it (otherwise I wouldn’t be sat here now writing this post) and it took me to an article titled “The strange reason why deaf children aren’t taught Sign Language.

Now, before I read anything, what instantly struck me was the word choice.

What reason for not teaching any variation of Sign Language is “strange?”

On finally reading the entire article, I discovered that “strange” doesn’t come into it.

The reason behind the journalist’s word choice stemmed from this – the realisation that the inventor Alexander Graham Bell was instrumental in changing how we view deafness, as well as inventing the telephone. Along with educators at the 1880 Milan Conference, he was in favour of teaching d/Deaf children through oralism and banning Sign Language in education.

As a son and husband to Deaf women, he believed that speech and oralism was the way forward; mainstreaming anyone who was d/Deaf into society would provide him or her with greater prospects, and more importantly, by mixing with the Hearing, they would be less likely to pass on any hereditary deafness. His views on eugenics and deafness are still felt to this day with the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Of course, I cannot speak for everyone, but for people who know about d/Deaf Culture and history, it is an important reason that still has some repercussions today, notably, the promotion of speech over sign language.

The reality is that 90 percent of d/Deaf children are born to Hearing parents and families, who have little to no prior knowledge of deafness or how to communicate with the d/Deaf.[1]

Not wanting to alienate their child from their own culture and language, many parents of d/Deaf children are advised to provide them with Hearing Aids, and Cochlear Implants (if suitable) and influence them to speak. This may come gradually or with speech and language therapy.

Nonetheless, this is solely one way of providing their children with language. They don’t realise that Sign Language is also acceptable and even more beneficial, because as well as promoting bilingualism, it gives the children a natural language, and more importantly a culture that won’t treat them as an “other” in a world that is predominantly Hearing.

I think the journalist, however, chose her words right when she said not learning Sign Language is a form of “language deprivation.” I am a staunch advocate of bilingualism and Sign Language learning, and I believe choosing to give both speech and Sign Language to children does no harm in the long run. In the future, they might prefer speech, sign language, or both, and by giving them that choice at an earlier age means that they can reach a greater level of fluency in whatever language they eventually choose. Although with the number of Sign Language classes provided, that is not to say Sign Language cannot be acquired later on! The beauty of it is that such a way is possible!!

Also, bilingualism doesn’t mean that both languages have to be spoken. In fact, you can argue that every d/Deaf person who signs is bilingual. My sister doesn’t speak but she is bilingual because she communicates through British Sign Language and English – the English just happens to be written English instead.


I don’t think that the “sign language vs oralism” discussion/debate will ever end, but it is one that defines how we perceive deafness and the wider world. I don’t vocalise my own beliefs as if they are a platitude. I’m not campaigning to promote Sign Language over spoken language. I’m just hoping that one day, both forms of communication are given the same legal and official standing and equality.

Perhaps when Britain, the USA and other countries give Sign Language legal protection and official language status, as well as providing awareness, we will see a change.

[1] Statistic was taken from the UK’s National Deaf Children’s Society (NDCS), but it seems the percentage is fairly international too.

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