Cochlear Implants and Minority Cultures

A bit more on the cochlear implant thing that I’ve been mentioning off and on for the past couple of months.  William Mager posted a link to something a little while ago on why some members of the deaf community are against CIs.  This attitude had always puzzled me.  Anyway, this, by Christina Hartmann, is the thing to which he linked.

Not wanting one yourself, I can understand easily enough.  Not wanting one for your children based on uncertainty about their benefit, I can understand.  But being against them in principle?  Couldn’t get my head around that.  It always seemed a bit wilfully isolationist – a bit identity-politics.  Hartmann’s contribution, I think, makes things a bit clearer.

Without ASL, there is no Deaf community. We band together not because of our “hearing loss” but because of a common language.  Like English, Bengali, French, American Sign Language (ASL) informs the cultural underpinnings of the Deaf community. Deaf history shows the importance of ASL to Deaf people. It’s not something we’ll give up easily and gladly.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, many educators tried to eradicate ASL in favor of oralism. They wanted to assimilate deaf people into the “mainstream” community. Many deaf people suffered because of this. They received marginal education because they couldn’t understand the spoken language. One of the older deaf men that I knew in my childhood couldn’t get a job better than a janitor because he received no valuable education from his oral school.  They just tried to teach him how to talk, to no avail.

Amidst all of this, a vibrant community emerged. People would converge at Deaf schools and churches just for a chance to use their own language with someone else. A feeling of kinship grew in face of oppression. (Yes, trying to abolish a language and forcibly integrate people is oppression.)  Many Deaf people throughout history fought very hard for the right to sign and live on their own terms.  One example is the Gallaudet protests of the 1980s. The thought that this hard-earned culture will disappear because parents don’t want to learn ASL sparks abject fear and anger in many Deaf people.

And why not?  Wouldn’t you be angry if someone told you that your culture is outdated and irrelevant now?

This last sentence or two seems to me to be important.  CIs reduce the need for ASL (or BSL); SL sustains a culture; therefore CIs erode that culture.I don’t think it is important if cultures or languages disappear – we’re no worse off for Etruscan no longer being spoken (or English, for that matter), or for a lack of Aztec sacrifices.  As Hartmann admits, there might come a day when technology makes deafness a thing of the past, and, with it, a deaf culture.  So it goes – at least sub specie aeternitatis.  I don’t buy into the idea that any culture has any particular intrinsic value.  Like species, some survive, some don’t.

But though I’m not convinced by Hartmann’s claim that this is unfortunate, I think I’ve got a glimpse of a possible source for hostility to CIs.

Imagine that you’re a monoglot speaker of some dwindling minority language.  Your children are fluently bilingual; your grandchildren can hold a basic conversation in your language; your great-grandchildren don’t have a clue.  And why should they?  The world doesn’t turn to your rhythm.  But… but…

Every time your kids speak a language you don’t understand, you’re slightly cut off from what they mean.  You might even think it good that your descendants are not restricted in their interactions with the wider world in the same way that you are; but all the same, it’s compatible with that to feel that, with every slight movement away from your language, you’re made that bit worse off, because it’s a bit more of the world that is retreating from you.  At the same time, the smaller the minority to which you belong, the greater the sense in the majority that you’re deficient and socially dysfunctional.  And, of course, the process is self-perpetuating, because a language that’s seen as obsolete will lose speakers, and a language that is losing speakers will be a language that becomes more obsolete.

So, yeah: I can see how bilingualism might be seen as a threat.  And I can see how you might develop a hostility to it.  Not because you’re hostile to the advantages it brings to the bilingual, but because of the way it affects you.

I don’t think that, in the end, that’s a particularly morally praiseworthy or tenable position.  But I think I’ve got a sense of the hostility that I didn’t have before.  I think.

I don’t know.  Am I at least vaguely in the vicinity?  I might have got things wrong.  (The comments on Mager’s post are worth reading, by the way.)  Hartmann’s piece is illuminating, though.


Oh, and, tangentially, there’s a good philosophical piece on the loss of minority languages here.

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