Sign of progress

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 June, 2008, 12:00am

In a Primary One classroom at St John the Baptist Catholic Primary School in Kowloon Bay, children don't just use their hands to attract the teacher's attention - some use their hands to answer the teachers' questions.

Only six of the 30 students are deaf, but sign language has become an integral part of all of the children's classroom experience under an innovative project claimed to be the first of its kind in Asia.

The project, conducted by Chinese University's Centre for Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies, strives to fully integrate deaf students into a mainstream school by helping them to become 'bilingual' through learning both sign and spoken language.

Yesterday, project manager Chris Yiu Kun-man presented early research findings from the first two years of the seven-year project at the China Research Festival at University College London.

Mr Yiu, who has been working in the field of deaf education for nearly 20 years, said deaf children had not traditionally been taught sign language in Hong Kong. Instead, they had been taught to communicate through lip reading and learning how to speak.

'Sign language is not used systematically in deaf schools and not all the teachers are trained in using sign language in deaf education,' Mr Yiu said.

'Educators believed that deaf children should learn spoken language as much as possible and hopefully that would help them integrate into society. There are some very successful cases where they can communicate very well with spoken language but still many of them cannot communicate effectively with others.'

Although most deaf children are now taught in mainstream schools, Mr Yiu said there was a lack of support to help them learn sign language, even though relying on spoken language could create difficulties.

'It's easy to get confused when you fully depend on lip reading and residual hearing, especially for a profoundly deaf student,' he said. 'From my experience, they can't comprehend very well in class. Most of the time, even though they have a hearing aid, many children just can't follow the lesson and cannot participate well in the lesson.'

To address this problem, the Chinese University researchers set out to develop an alternative model of deaf education where students learn sign language and spoken language in an inclusive setting.

Established with a HK$64 million donation from the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, the Sign Bilingualism and Co-enrolment in Deaf Education Programme includes the six students in the St John's Primary One class, another five at the Peace Evangelical Centre Kindergarten (Ngau Tau Kok) and a baby signing programme. Another six will join St John's in September.

The children learn alongside hearing students and are taught by a mainstream hearing teacher, a hearing teacher who knows sign language and a deaf teacher.

Mr Yiu said the hearing sign teacher acted as a bridge between the hearing teacher and the deaf teacher.

Having a deaf adult as a role model was important as research indicated that some children believed they would never grow up because they had never met a deaf adult.

'We do believe that a deaf adult in schools is very important in terms of the language input, teaching sign language and being a model for the deaf student,' Mr Yiu said, adding that the kindergarten and primary students also received speech therapy.

St John's programme co-ordinator and English teacher Rebecca Ng Kit-lan said lessons were first explained orally by the mainstream teacher, and then the sign language teacher translated the lesson. 'We repeat everything,' she said. 'This is a good chance for them to consolidate what they have learnt.'

Ms Ng said when the teachers asked questions, students were encouraged to answer orally but sign language was also used. 'The objective is for them to understand. If they can show they understand, they can use sign language or speak.'

She said the class had a dedicated sign language lesson every Friday and the hearing students had quickly picked it up, which had led to many friendships. Whenever the class did group work, the hearing and deaf students were mixed.

'This is a good chance for the students to communicate. They can play, they can work and learn with the other students, and we can let them know that they are not isolated in society, that somebody cares, that they can learn in a normal school in a normal programme,' Ms Ng said.

The extra teaching manpower allowed teachers to provide greater individual attention and gave them the opportunity to try different teaching methods. The parents of hearing students had been very supportive of their children learning sign language. 'They learn four languages - Chinese, English, Putonghua and sign language,' Ms Ng said.

Mr Yiu, who has worked with researchers at University College London and City University in London to assess the effectiveness of the programme, said early findings showed that both the deaf and the hearing children were learning sign language and spoken language together.

'We found that more and more hearing kids can communicate with deaf children by using sign language,' he said.

Deaf children could feel isolated because they were afraid of talking with their hearing peers. Learning both sign and spoken language was helping them to interact more.

'They can communicate using these two languages,' Mr Yiu said.

'When you observe the class you cannot distinguish between who is deaf and who is hearing.'

Being able to communicate with their hearing peers helped the students receive a mainstream education.

'Once they can mix well with the hearing kids they can learn spoken language from them and they can follow a mainstream curriculum,' he said.

While most of the parents of the hearing children readily accepted the programme, there was some concern that using sign language in the class would slow down their academic progress.

But this concern proved to be unfounded, with exam results showing that the children's results were no different from those in other classes.

'We've found that they have quite good results because we have implemented more reading programmes in the class,' Mr Yiu said.

The other major concern, that learning sign language would have a detrimental effect on the deaf students' spoken language abilities, was also not the case.

Mr Yiu said while oral language was largely dependent on the child's hearing ability, sign language could help them develop a second way of communicating.

'It helps them to communicate more with spoken language,' he said. 'When they learn sign language, that can help them to become bilingual.'

The baby signing programme, which includes infants as young as two months old, has parents learning sign language with their babies.

Mr Yiu said more than 95 per cent of deaf children had hearing parents and while the parents could already teach them spoken Cantonese, the programme helped them to teach their children sign language.

'Before parents didn't want them to learn sign language but now it's more accepted,' he said.

'We hope that they can learn sign and spoken language together. They can grow up with two languages.'

Mr Yiu hopes the programme will be expanded so that more deaf children have the opportunity to become 'bilingual'.

'We hope to develop this model and we hope that the government will use this kind of model in Hong Kong to educate deaf children,' he said.