November 2, 2010

Language Acquisition: Semantic Contingency

I am reading Deaf Plus: A Multicultural Perspective, by Kathee Christensen (2000). It is a very interesting read thus far.

Christensen has over 25 years of experience teaching and working in day and residential schools for the deaf and as a teacher in a teacher preparation program in deafness at a university.

Her book includes various topics such as literacy, multicultural and bilingual education of children who are deaf, different cultures, teaching, teachers expectations, and such. Overall, the book is about the benefits of multicultural education for all deaf students. I look forward to finish reading it (if I ever find the time).

Chapter 3, Emerging Literacy in Bilingual/Multicultural Education of Children Who Are Deaf, has been the most interesting to me so far. It discusses the importance of language acquisition, which I agree with wholeheartedly. There is little to no hope for someone to become literate if he or she never acquires language or hardly understands and uses language fluently.

Within this chapter, there is a section called Semantic Contingency. Here she talks about how the major facilitator of language acquisition is semantic contingency in adult speech to young children (p. 44). What exactly is semantic contingency? Semantic relates to meaning while contingency is what follows, the immediate future. From what I learned, semantic contingency is basically continuing a topic started by a child. But, it has to be done in a certain way if you want to successfully promote language acquisition within the child.

The author provided some examples,

Child, "New shoes." Adult, "These are your new, black patent leather shoes."
Child, "Go now." Adult, "Do you want to go to the park now?" (p. 44).

The more language you can add, the better. Why stop at only responding with only one or two words or signs? They may not fully understand what you are telling them as a baby, but the more you provide them language, the more they will acquire it. Talk to them like you would with anyone else. Deaf and hard of hearing children of caregivers who primarily communicate using spoken language will miss out on indirect spoken language such as side conversations, conversations on television and movies, and telephone conversations.

Can you understand how deaf and hard of hearing children of deaf signing caregivers or caregivers who sign fluently often fare better in language acquisition? And because they have a language, they often do better in reading and writing and other areas which should ensure success in school and life.

Ideally, you would want to communicate with your child (through signs, spoken language, cued speech, what have you) in this way on a daily basis. Take advantage of every opportunity you have to really put the effort in communicating with your child. This can be done during daily routines such as bath time, reading time, while your are feeding your child, while you watch videos or television with your child, while your child helps you with daily house chores, etc. The more you communicate with your child, the better the child will pick up language.

Based on this information, how does a hearing parent who is just learning sign language would be able to provide semantically contingent language models to their deaf or hard of hearing child on a consistent basis?

If you are just learning sign language, how are you supposed to respond with statements such as "These are your new, black patent leather shoes."? Most likely for someone just learning sign language as they are struggling with everyday issues and taking care of their child in other ways, this would be an extremely difficult thing to do or to remember to do. Perhaps a hearing parent with poor signing skills would respond, "Yes, new black shoes." Ideally, you would have learned how to sign patent leather or at least shiny.

Another question that comes to mind reading about language acquisition: Wouldn't it be necessary for a child with mild or moderate hearing loss to be exposed more to spoken language in this way than to learn sign language (unless of course the child is born to fluent signers)? Keep in the mind, that with hearing aids today, the child with the mild/moderate hearing loss can temporarily resemble someone with normal hearing or a slight hearing loss, giving them more opportunities to learn spoken language.

Of course, you will have the rare breed of super dedicated caregivers who will learn sign language as an added bonus in communicating with their hard of hearing child, while providing them a language with semantic contingency.

I think it would be more important for the average caregivers to concentrate working with their children with mild or moderate hearing losses to facilitate spoken language skills, rather than to throw in trying to learn a brand new language (sign language).

I know that when I sign, it is not fluent ASL. Also, I can't help but talk at the same time. Therefore, my signing is choppy and simpler than if I were to use spoken language. I would rather expose a child with a mild/moderate hearing loss to fluent spoken language than my inferior signing. Of course when the child gets older, maybe the parent or parents signing skills will improve (if they continue learning sign language) and the child may want to learn sign language. It would be important that the child has a good grasp of spoken language (that is if you worked on providing excellent language models). Signing can come later.

I have to wonder if it would be a good idea to suggest to average parents to learn sign language and to use it with their mild/moderate deaf child, if their child is doing well with listening and speaking and understanding language. Why not focus more on teaching them ways that they can use spoken language with their child which can help the child acquire language? If they want to learn and use sign language with their child, fine. If they seem reluctant to use it with their mild/moderately deaf child, why would you tell them that they have to learn sign language?

I have known some parents who, after talking with some strong ASL advocates, decide to go the ASL route. They tried learning ASL, while still talking with their mild/moderately deaf child. They were never taught how they can help facilitate language (spoken and sign). Then later, they stick the child with an interpreter in school, who acts more as a paraprofessional than a communication/language facilitator. And then the the child ends up being somewhat behind in language, while preferring to listen and speak and not use signs. The child also grows dependent on the interpreter to help them with everything (not just clarification of language). Meanwhile, the parents continue to use little to no signs with their child at home.

What good does it do to suggest to the parents to learn sign language and then leave it up to them with no guidance or follow ups?

Now, if you have a child who is severely or profoundly deaf, it would be more appropriate to explore ways to communicate with your child visually (ideally through fluent sign language). Find the best way to communicate with your child (your child will let you know which he or she is more comfortable with). If you choose sign language, learn it and practice as much as you can! Expose your child to good signing models as much as you can as you learn sign language (go to haddy2dogs' blog and read about a mother's amazing experiences learning ASL and using it with her profoundly deaf son).

The point I am trying to make here is that language acquisition is KEY! It takes a lot of work to decide how to best communicate with your deaf and hard of hearing child and then utilize it on a consistent basis. Understand that acquiring any language, whether it is spoken language or sign language is very important. If it looks as if the child is having trouble learning language through oral/aural methods, try a different approach. Also, it is important not to look down at others who chose one or two ways to communicate with their deaf or hard of hearing child that is different from your communication modes. If it works for the child, good for them.

(*My opinions don't reflect the opinions of the author mentioned. I am only writing about how a chapter from her book inspired certain questions and opinions relating to language acquisition).



  1. You commented, "I have to wonder if it would be a good idea to suggest to average parents to learn sign language and to use it with their child, if their child is doing well with listening and speaking."

    I have to say I wonder the same thing as I hear those arguments frequently. They would say, "why teach those with mild to moderate hearing loss American Sign Language especially if they are doing well in their speaking and listening skills."

    I would like to suggest some things here. One, just because they can hear and speak well doesn't mean they will do well academically.

    The 2007 statistics (the latest that is available) of hard-of-hearing students in the state of California show us that only 18% of those students are reading at grade level. Their math statistics aren't so hot either.

    We need to stand back and look at the bigger picture.

    It is great that they are able to listen and speak. However, we need to evaluate whether those skills are enough to tackle critical academic skills such as reading and math. Statistics tell one story.

    My hard of hearing son who hears and speaks admits to the fact that if he gets tired, his hearing and listening and speaking skills suffer.

    I think it is safe to say that those children are also human and have human frailties that somehow prevent them from maximizing their potential.

    Once again, if ASL has been proven to help hearing children achieve higher IQ and reading scores, why wouldn't we want to do that for our deaf and hard of hearing children, never mind levels of their hearing loss? I suggest that, if you have time, "Dancing with Words" would be a great book to read.

    Good post, (e.


  2. Just my opinion, and linguists may differ with it. I think that the important thing is to COMMUNICATE--never mind if it is broken spoken English or bad ASL--go with whatever you have, and as much of it as one can.

    Re. new shoes: "Yes, you have new shoes" (signed: black shoes) "they are black" (point to the shoes and to something that is black) "Shiny" (point to something that is also shiny)"New black shiny shoes" (signed: black shoes, point to black item and shiny item).

    Trust the child to learn to lipread and to sign as well as connect to the concepts of black and shiny.

    Depending on how well the child picks up in the various modes offered, the parent will become more likely to go in that direction. If the child is responding more to the signs, the parent will want to learn more of it.

    What is important in the early stages is that communication of ideas and information is possible and that there are several ways to do it. Refining the grammar and vocabulary soon follows.

  3. Marla,

    Many hearing kids experience trouble with academics as well. You are right, just because a child can hear and speak well does not mean that they will do well academically. However, they will have a language. It is better to have a good grasp of a language than a choppy version. If a child has little understanding of language, most likely the child will not do well in academically.

    "Once again, if ASL has been proven to help hearing children achieve higher IQ and reading scores, why wouldn't we want to do that for our deaf and hard of hearing children, never mind levels of their hearing loss?"

    Because I worry about the parents and teachers who are poor models as ASL users, while they struggle with being taught how to properly accommodate the child in the classroom (preferential seating, understand how tiring it is for hard of hearing children to listen, good view of teacher, good use of amplification devices, or making sure the child is not left out of discussions, etc.).

    I don't think it has been proven that children who learn ASL have higher IQs. The same could be said about children who are bi-lingual or who learn another language--that is if they have a language already. Most of these kids with higher IQs must have had a strong language base to begin with and great support at home and in school.

    I'll check out "Dancing With Words". I wish I had more time to read!!!

    Thanks for your input Marla,


  4. Dianrez says, "If the child is responding more to the signs, the parent will want to learn more of it."

    Yes, Dianrez, that is true! It is always a joy to see the excitement on some parents' faces when they tell me about how their child is responding to their signs! This only encourages them to do more signing with their child, which is awesome.

    I worry about those parents who struggle with using signs and are dismayed by the fact that their child is not picking it up, I have to wonder how they are communicating with their child at home and if they are looking at other communication options that could help.

    The ones that seem indifferent about communicating with their child wondering when their child will learn sign language from me (bad idea) or their classroom interpreter worry me the most.


  5. Marla,

    What I should have said instead was "I have to wonder if it would be a good idea to suggest to average parents to learn sign language and to use it with their mild/moderate deaf child, if their child is doing well with listening and speaking and understanding language."

    I don't know if this makes any difference.


  6. Marla says,

    "My hard of hearing son who hears and speaks admits to the fact that if he gets tired, his hearing and listening and speaking skills suffer."

    This is a very important issue that people who work with hard of hearing people must understand. It takes a lot of concentration and brain power to listen when you are hard of hearing or deaf. When a hard of hearing or deaf person gets tired or if they are not feeling well imagine how much harder and tiring it becomes for them. I tell teachers to please remember this and to remember to keep lectures or times that require a lot of listening short or break them up with different activities in between. Besides, I don't know many kids who like to sit and listen to adults talk for long periods of time (hearing or deaf).


  7. No, Diane, if you are not signing fluently, your child WILL have delays. If you do not use or know certain signs, how will your child learn them? A child can only use the language they are exposed to.

  8. hi e) This is a great post because it talks about one of the key components in the "how" of language development (in any language, visual or spoken). Semantic contingency applies to both ASL and spoken English. If you're interested in this subject, you might use Google Scholar to look up the works of Patricia E. Spencer Day at Gallaudet University who has done extensive research and written numerous publications on parent child communication. As a grad student at Gallaudet, I worked under her on one of those projects and it was a valuable experience.

    here is one such link for you. You can download the article at:

    Semantic contingency can be taught in any parent-infant or early childhood program, whether oral, TC, or ASL. So if I were a hearing parent who wanted to learn to become semantically contingent with my deaf child in ASL, I'd ask to partner with a deaf parent and deaf infant who can model the process for me. Ditto with a hearing parent of a hard of hearing child, and even a deaf parent of a deaf child who did not have a good language model growing up.

  9. Miss Kat's Parents,

    Yes, that was what I was trying to get at with this post. If you don't sign fluently and consistently with the child, most likely he or she will have delays. It's quality and quantity in this case.


    Yes, it is the "how" that is important and it seems as if semantic contingency helps tremendously with this. Thanks for the link. I will have to read the article. Sounds interesting.



  10. Great post (e! I learned something about that term: semantic contingency. I think it does make sense. Which is why parents who feel they will not be fluent in signs prefer to focus on different options. It's been said time and time again that language acquisition is the key. Definitely one can't say the only way to achieve language acquisition is ______.

    Often I would see parents who opt for CI/AVT will make that same argument, that they feel they can work with their child more with spoken English since they are not fluent in ASL and probably never will be. For others, it was a risk they didn't want to take. They already have language: Spoken English, so they opt for that with their deaf child.


  11. Actually, before worrying about the proficiency of the language a child is exposed to, you need to worry about accessibility. Poor quality accessible language will benefit a child more than best quality inaccessible language. A problem that I do not see written much about is that hearing aids or CI's do not offer *immediate* access to spoken language - there is a variable training and adjustment period before someone can learn to understand auditory information. Visual language is accessible to a sighted child immediately and infants, whether Hearing or Deaf/HoH, can begin to interact via signs well before they can via speech.

    BTW, you said "I know that when I sign, it is not fluent ASL. Also, I can't help but talk at the same time." If your mouth is moving, then what you are signing is *not* ASL, but some variant of PSE/MCE/signed English. While this is visually accessible and therefore of more benefit than inaccessible speech, it is not actually a language. PSE is a pidgin or contact form composed of a variablr mix of English and ASL. The biggest difficulty is that the language rules are not consistent, but quickly shift with time during a conversation and with different users.

    Having said that, and despite my conviction that there are methods of teaching and raising children that are superior to others, the biggest factor in how well a child does in school and in life is parental dedication. Parents who choose a lesser method to teach their child and apply themsleves with dedication and consistency will almost always have a more successful and better adjusted child than parents who choose the best methods but who are not consistent and who delegate their child's upbringing to others.


  12. David, I disagree. Kids with CI's walk out of the booth on activation day able to access spoken language. It takes time for them to understand what it means, but it takes a hearing baby several months to start to put language together too.

    My daughter had a progressive loss, so her situation is a little different, but she had less than 30 receptive words when she was activated, and within a week had doubled that....a WEEK!

    So, how do you give a child ASL when you do NOT know it? You have just said that MCE or PSE don't count and don't work, so what on earth is a hearing parent to do?

  13. MKP,

    "what on earth is a hearing parent to do?"

    I think the first key is what I said last. Be involved, preferrably *both* parents involved, and proactive. If parents start signing when the child is an infant, then it is possible to "stay ahead of the curve", that is, to model language more complex than the child's and so encourage language growth and development.

    Secondly, MCE/PSE is not ideal, but it most assuredly *does* count. Please re-read my first paragraph, especially "Poor quality accessible language will benefit a child more than best quality inaccessible language." If this were not true, children of first-generation immigrants would never make to college, yet they most certainly do.

    I have enjoyed following your blog and following Katrina's progress. I have observed and visited with quite a number of kids with CI's in several cities and I have observed that your experience with Katrina is not typical. THe kids I have observed seem to take anywhere from a month or two, to years, to occasionally never to be able to access auditory input. I have never met a family that has reported doubling of receptive vocabulary in a week. I think your experience with Katrina represents the flowering of *all* the ground work and preparation that you have done with her, and not the results of technology alone.

    I would also say that, based on the videos you have posted, Katrina had well developed language before she was implanted. She seems to bear out Oliver Sacks's observation that even if children are taught PSE/MCE, they tend to evolve ASL-like grammar forms. (I say that without really knowing how you have signed with Katrina.)

    Someone else has pointed to the studies that show the cognitive and educational benefits of signing with Hearing infants. I continue to be amazed that it is still controveersial to sign with Deaf/HoH infants.


  14. Absolutely NOT! She was not using spoken language before her CI. She had a few words, but it was not language.

    I have only known 2 children who were implanted young who did not develop spoken language through listening with their CI's, out of at least 100. Generally, they are caught up to their hearing peers in 3 years, not starting to learn, but completely caught up.

  15. David

    Not all language is spoken and not all speech is language. Failure to recognize non-spoken language has done great harm to Deaf people over the years.

    I stand by my statement that your videos of Katrina show that she had a well-developed language base before she was implanted. I think your experience with Katrina represents the flowering of *all* the ground work and preparation that you have done with her, and not the results of technology *alone*.


  16. I'm sorry, you are right, I misread your last comment. I thought you said that she had spoken language before her implant. She did not, but she was using ASL.

  17. (e, I just came across this website today and I am so thankful. The information you provide is very helpful and informative. I am constantly looking for information on how to improve the quality of education my hard of hearing students receive. I really like how you stated, "Deaf and hard of hearing children will miss out on indirect spoken language such as side conversations, conversations on television and movies, and telephone conversations." I am saddened by how little most parents know about hearing loss and the effects it has on language. I have parents telling me that they don't understand why their child is behind, or that they thought the hearing aid "fixed" the hearing loss. I try to express to parents that the more they communicate and model appropriate language, the greater the impact it will have on their child.
    I am constantly exposing my students to new vocabulary and stopping in the middle of lessons to allow them the time to use expressive language because I can model appropriate language and they can practice and interact with their peers. I like how in your one post you showed a student eating fudge for the first time. I do these same activities all the time! The kids love it, and so do I! Language Acquisition is definitely a very complex area to teach, but I am thankful for websites like this to help me reflect on things I am doing and things I could add. Thanks!

  18. Carrie,

    You sound like a wonderful teacher who cares about her students! That's great that you are always trying to find different ways to expose your students to language. I think it is so important for teachers to always be on a look out for information about their field and to be constantly learning.

    I am also always amazed at how little most parents know or understand their child's hearing loss.

    I had a hard time finding websites or blogs about deaf/hoh teachers' personal experiences with and ideas about deaf/hoh education, which is one of the reasons why I started blogging. I wanted to see if there is anyone else out there experiencing the same things or if anyone can challenge my ideas and teach me.

    Thank you for reading. Please contact me if you have any questions or would like to contribute a post about your experiences.



  19. A lot of parents are learning signs to communicate with hearing toddlers, and it doesn't hold them back from speech. In fact, it gives them a boost.
    What I'd recommend for a parent just learning to sign, especially if the child has a milder hearing impairment, would be to use SimCom, and if they don't know the sign for a word just speak it. And if you're trying to expand on your child's statement, aim to use one more word than they did. So if they signed 'more', you can respond with 'want more' or 'more food' (accompanied by a complete spoken sentence). A kid who can lipread a bit, hear a bit and understand the signs can get a mostly complete sentence from that, especially when discussing toddler topics.
    I'm guessing a bigger challenge for these kids would be missing out on overhearing adult conversations. Avoiding ASL won't help with that issue - wearing a hearing aid, and having parents make an effort to sign while speaking to each other in the child's presence, would help.


Keep it civil.