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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Hearing, Mother Father Deaf: Hearing People in Deaf Families

Michele Bishop and
Sherry L. Hicks, Editors

Part IV: Coda Identity and Experience

Exploring Linguistic and Cultural Identity:
My Personal Experience

Jemina Napier

I am the eldest child of a deaf couple in England. My father was the only deaf person in his family, and he was raised orally. He learned British Sign Language (BSL) when he met my mother and now uses BSL as his preferred language for communication. He works in a hearing-dominated workplace and regularly attends the local deaf club. My mother comes from a large deaf family, which has four generations of deafness, and she grew up with BSL as her first language. The few hearing members of her family can all sign, so for her, being deaf and using sign language were the norm. My mother was the first person in her family to get a university degree, which she completed without the assistance of note takers or interpreters. She began her career as a BSL teacher, moved on to training deaf people to become BSL teachers, and now manages a college department that offers BSL and BSL teacher-training courses. Thus she works in a deaf/sign language-dominated workplace. She regularly attended a deaf club while growing up and continued to do so once married, but does so less now.1

BILINGUAL STATUS

I grew up using BSL in the home from birth. Thus I would identify myself as a native signer. I have one younger sibling, who is hearing and also signs. My parents made a concerted effort to expose us to spoken language by using both BSL and English, mouthing the English words, fingerspelling, and/or speaking and signing at the same time. Such contact signing is commonly referred to in the United Kingdom as Signed Supported English (SSE), which is different from the Signed Exact English (SEE) systems available in the United States, as it is essentially a form of code-blending or code-mixing between BSL and English (Emmorey, Borenstein, & Thompson, 2003; Lucas & Valli, 1992). Many deaf people in the United Kingdom would state that they use SSE rather than BSL (Corker, 1997). Given that I was exposed to both BSL (and SSE) and English from a very young age, I would not necessarily say that BSL is my first, or “A” language, as I acquired both languages simultaneously. Thus it could be said that I am a “double A,” because I have native-like proficiency in both languages (Pöchhacker, 2004).

Early bilingualism researchers variously described bilingual individuals as perfect, true, or balanced, with “native-like control of two languages” (Bloomfield, 1942: 56), and viewed positively the native speaker-like quality of a bilingual’s two languages. According to this view, the bilingual has two separate language competencies that are similar to the corresponding competencies of the monolingual. More recent research into human cognition tends to indicate that language processing in the bilingual brain is more complex than simply the sum of two monolingual modes of processing (de Groot & Kroll, 1997; Grosjean, 1992). In addition, a large body of research has demonstrated that the profile of bilingual individuals is complex and diverse (Hoffman, 1991; Romaine, 1995). Bilingual language use is known to vary according to the nature of language acquisition and usage. Bilinguals can be characterized according to a wide range of parameters, such as whether their languages were acquired naturalistically or formally, simultaneously from birth or consecutively; whether they have bilingual proficiency in reading, writing, listening, and speaking; and their degree of biculturalism (Hamers & Blanc, 2000). It is also known that bilinguals generally use each of their languages in different domains and may not have equivalent proficiency in all domains (Myers-Scotton, 2006).


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