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Cued Speech and ASL—Why I Use Both

When we first confirmed my son was deaf, I had several communication choices presented to me by his Early Intervention coordinator.  I had never heard of cued speech, and at first I was ready to dismiss it solely because it was not the dominant form of communication among Deaf people.  But when an advocate of cued speech explained to me what websites couldn’t, I was convinced, and we proceeded with a plan that included both ASL and Cued Speech; contrary to popular belief, the two are not mutually exclusive.

I love ASL.  It is my son’s first language.  But thanks to cued speech (which is a misnomer, as it is more accurately cueing language, be it English, French, Spanish, or any other, and does not require oral vocalizations at all) my son is also learning English with this visual mode.  Both systems have their benefits.

We chose cued speech partially because of its success with improving literacy levels, but also because it provides visual cues for the spoken sounds that are not easily distinguishable on the lips.  Once my son received his cochlear implant, cued speech became all the more important in helping him discriminate between different sounds he is hearing.  (For those that aren’t familiar with it, Hilary Franklin wrote a nice summary explanation of cued speech on DeafEcho)  Cued speech is not a language; it is a visual mode for communicating English (among other spoken languages.)  It is not a new signed language or an updated version of Signed Exact English.  It is not an attempt to eradicate ASL.  (In fact, we are finding the two work quite well together, despite objections otherwise from strong proponents in each camp.)  Cued speech incorporates speechreading with various hand shapes and positions around the face to represent different phonemes (units of sound) of the oral language.  The combination of what appears on the lips, in conjunction with eight different handshapes (representing consonants) and four unique hand placements (corresponding to vowels) represent all the sounds of the English language visually.

Cued speech was originally designed to improve literacy levels among deaf children by helping them learn English in a similar way to hearing children; except visually instead of through auditory means.  Cued speech can also assist those with language-processing disorders such as autism, apraxia, and other learning or developmental “disabilities.”  It has many benefits, regardless of the level of hearing.  It improves speechreading abilities to assist deaf individuals even when communicating with a hearing person who does not cue.  In hearing people, and in children such as my son (with the assistance of a cochlear implant), cued speech helps with auditory discrimination.  Even though my son may not yet be able to hear the difference between a “p” and a “b,” he can see the difference from the different cueing handshapes.  In this way, deaf individuals can identify rhyming words, even if they aren’t spelled alike, because they are cued alike.

One of the main advantages of cued speech was how quickly we were able to learn the entire system and begin communicating everything to our deaf son.  We learned all the handshapes and placements after only about two months at an hour a week.  (There are also “cue camps” that will teach the system in an intensive weekend.)  From there, it was just about practicing and improving our accuracy and speed, but we already were able to communicate anything we wanted.

Contrasting this with ASL, especially as new parents that didn’t have the option of taking formal ASL classes, the prospect of learning an entirely new language seemed daunting at times.  We very much wanted our son to be able to sign, and were constantly referencing our ASL websites of choice to look up words as we found ourselves wanting to say them.  But just as I couldn’t easily learn French in two months, becoming fluent in ASL seemed a long way off for us.  Cued speech provided an easy-to-learn, thorough, visual method to begin communicating with our son quickly.

On the flip side, while cued speech is fairly quick for adults to learn, it does not provide quick “results” in the child.  We saw our son’s comprehension improving rapidly, but since the handshapes require a bit of dexterity, our two-year-old was unable to cue back to us.  ASL had a distinct advantage there; Aaron picked up signing very quickly.  Initially, it took him some time to understand that our moving hands were a means of communication.  Given the fact that he was not properly diagnosed until age 15 months, he was 18 months before we saw his first sign.  But once he realized that signs had meaning, we saw his progress take off.  He was gaining as many new words per week as his hearing peers (adjusting his relative age by 15 months.)  By age 3, (after only 21 months of language exposure) he had hundreds of signs.  His sign accuracy, speed, and vocabulary continue to expand, as he can sign the alphabet more quickly than I can, and we can now distinguish between some of his signs that used to look more similar (ie “orange” and “milk”.)  ASL gave my son his first ability to communicate; his propensity for learning soared, as he learned all the colors in about two days, and started seeking out other vocabulary groups for things in his world: animals, foods, family members.  He’d bring a toy to me with an inquisitive look on his face that said, “What’s this, Mommy?”  And as I scrambled to the computer to look up sign after sign, I became very grateful for ASL for giving my frustrated toddler language.

Just as cued speech and its purposes are misunderstood by many, ASL is also met with misconceptions and ignorance.  I read through websites with outdated opinions that suggested that ASL will make a child “retarded,” or worse, suggested that deaf people already are mentally disadvantaged.  Misleading literacy statistics don’t always point out that lower reading level abilities only reflect a person’s grasp of English, and have nothing to do with their mental capabilities or abilities to express themselves fully in their native language.

Another bias against ASL that we discovered was that it should only be used as a last resort if hearing aids, cochlear implants, and speech therapy do not work for a particular individual.  Some attitudes we encountered regarded deaf schools and ASL as the final option, something to fall back on, rather than embrace up front.  Much of this probably stems from doctors and audiologists; I “met” a woman online whose son was receiving sounds from his implant, but whose audiologist scolded them for signing and told them only to use it if the implant didn’t work. In the meantime, the child was at risk of losing valuable language-learning years.

Clearly, there is a lot of ignorance related to both forms of communication, and some who shun visual forms of communication altogether try to make children rely on residual hearing.  But I’ve seen ASL and Cued Speech work together.  Signing helped my son improve his dexterity, which aided in his sign clarity, as well as his ability to cue.  We observed his accuracy and finger-flexibility improve just from him watching episode after recorded episode of PBS’s Signing Time.  By age 3 ½, Aaron started cueing along with us, while he also continued to sign.  Currently, we frequently say things twice, once in cued English, and once in ASL.  (Since both require the use of hands, we can’t mimic Total Communication and use both languages simultaneously.)  Aaron follows along, cueing things as we prompt him to ask for what he wants.  As a result, we are seeing his comprehension of English improve, as well as his pronunciation of the sounds he can produce.  While cued speech does not require or even rely on hearing, cued speech and cochlear implants seem to go hand in hand quite well.  Studies have shown that use of cued speech prior to receiving a cochlear implant increases the benefit received by the implant.

To summarize,

Cued Speech:

  • Is relatively quick and easy for parents to learn
  • Increases comprehension of English, but takes longer for children to be able cue in response
  • Provides a visual mode of communication to make the sounds of oral language look different from each other
  • Increases literacy levels
  • Improves auditory discrimination, visual speech reception, and receptive language

ASL:

  • Is easy for children to acquire
  • Provides easy-to-understand visual language
  • Gives deaf children a way to communicate and express themselves
  • Is the dominant visual communication method of the Deaf community and offers a sense of unity and identity
  • Is a beautiful language, independent of English, and should be respected as such

Cued Speech is not:

  • A language in itself
  • A replacement for ASL
  • Signed Exact English (SEE)
  • Just a way to teach the deaf to “talk” or assimilate

ASL is not:

  • A communication method to choose for a deaf child only when all else fails
  • A visual form of English
  • A means of communication that will make children “mentally retarded” or illiterate

Over the brief course of my journey into D/deaf studies, I have become a strong advocate for the use of both cued speech and ASL.  It is unfortunate that some “experts” on both sides discourage the use of these two systems simultaneously, as both have wonderful benefits and help compensate for the other’s shortcomings.

[For more great resources, check out the National Cued Speech Association and National Association of the Deaf (although even Wikipedia has a decent summary of cued speech).  Also watch these particular Youtube videos (though there are many others) on Cued Speech and ASL, though I recommend avoiding the comments section of most Youtube videos out there, as there are many ignorant, misleading, misinformed, and bigoted opinions.]

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