Orange Eyes

Bimodal bilingualism in hearing adults from deaf families

Written by Michele Bishop and Sherry Hicks

For Codas everywhere

Different aspects of bilingualism have been studied all over the world, (Grosjean 1982, Hornberger 1987, Romaine 1989, Zentella 1997, Wei 2000, King 2000, Ohara 2001, Pavlenko & Piller 2001, Piller 2002, Jaffe 2003). These studies have looked at a wide range of topics in spoken language bilinguals such as patterns of code switching, the role of code switching in community life, the success or failure of bilingual education, and second language learning and gender as well as many other issues; all focusing on single modality bilinguals (using two spoken languages). These studies are often not applicable to the study of bimodal bilingualism in which the person knows a sign language from birth and the spoken language of the larger, hearing society. The study of bilingualism in hearing people from deaf families offers an opportunity to analyze how native users of both a signed and a spoken language combine aspects of both languages simultaneously (code blending). The perceived lower status of American Sign Language in relation to English may also contribute to how these bimodal bilinguals view and use their languages. Unlike spoken language bilinguals who must stop one language before beginning another, a bimodal bilingual has the capability to speak and sign at the same time. This linguistic capability will serve to inform and expand the field of bilingualism, discourse analysis and the role of code blending as a cultural identifier. This preliminary research focuses on emails taken from a forum on the Internet for hearing people with deaf parents. Two hundred and seventy five lines from one hundred emails were collected and analyzed. The study shows evidence of strong ASL grammatical influence in these emails (an absence of overt subjects, overt objects, determiners, copula, prepositions) as well as unique structures (nonstandard verb inflections, overgeneralization of, syntactic calquing). There is also a strong tendency to use English to describe an ASL sign; i.e. “My father fork-in-throat.” The meaning of that sign fork-in-throat is “stuck” but the bilingual chooses to use the visual description of the sign instead of the English lexical equivalent (note the absence of copula). The overall results of this analysis are compared to Internet Relay Chat as described by Werry and Mowbray (2001), and TDD writings (telecommunications device for deaf people) (Mather 1991).

Hearing children from deaf families, codas1, represent a relatively invisible linguistic and cultural minority. Many hearing people are unaware of the fact that American Sign Language is a separate language with its own grammatical structure unlike that of English. This misconception has led to an emphasis on oral education for deaf people in this country that in turn has created a stronger connection between the deaf community and American Sign Language (Lane et. al 1996, Lane 1993, Ladd 2002). Codas grow up as a part of the deaf community and learn ASL as their first language2. Intense interest in sign and spoken language bilingualism has led to a focus on mother-child dyads rather than adult bilinguals. Studies have found that deaf mothers speak as well as sign to their deaf and hearing children (Meadow-Orlans 1997; Maestas y Moores 1980; Schiff 1976; Mills and Coerts 1989; Moores and Moores 1982; Bogaerde 2000; Rodriquez 2001, Petitto et al. 2001). Bogaerde (2003) studies the mixed language input of six deaf mothers with their hearing and deaf children. Bogaerde suggests that hearing children are getting an input comprised of a third system that combines both spoken Dutch and the sign language of the Netherlands (NGT). Though beyond the scope of this study, the larger question remains whether this maternal mixed language input during childhood is one of the main influences on the later emergence of coda talk in adults.

Hearing bimodal bilinguals have been missing to some degree from the body of linguistic research on bilingualism perhaps due to the relatively recent recognition of sign languages as full human languages by the linguistic community. Bilingual studies of hearing people from deaf families offer researchers a chance to see the simultaneous production of two distinct languages that is obviously quite different than the bilingualism of people with two spoken languages. The relationship of one language to another is not well understood. Does one code influence the other? Under what circumstances are the codes blending? Do these bimodal bilinguals codeswitch or code-blend? What significance does code blending have for this bilingual community? This paper attempts to address these issues as well as discuss the stigma attached to bilingualism in general and bimodal bilingualism specifically. A parallel is drawn between marginalized Spanish/English bilinguals in New York City and the oppression of the Deaf community and ASL. There is a brief discussion of how stigma manifests in language attitudes and cultural identity and the role it may play in the formation of a systematic code-blending in the coda community. The last section looks at features of coda writing and the characteristics of coda-talk.

In order to understand the development of a linguistic identity in the hearing child born into a deaf family, it is crucial to understand two main points: that there is a Deaf3 culture which differs from hearing culture and that hearing children do not see themselves as different from their parents (or deaf siblings in some cases) until they get older (Lane et. al 1996). From a deaf perspective, their hearing children are essentially deaf because they understand and assimilate to these cultural norms. Codas are considered to be deaf in everyway except for the experience of not being able to hear (Lane et. al 1996). From a hearing perspective, Deaf cultural values and norms are usually not recognized or understood (Preston 1994). This ignorance about deaf people extends to their sign language as well, evidenced by the historical emphasis on oral education for deaf children and the resistance to early exposure to ASL for deaf children. This societal bias also affects the hearing children from deaf families, as these children are often not perceived as being bicultural or bilingual by hearing society. The misunderstandings that inevitably arise are due to the mutual ignorance of hearing and deaf people concerning one another’s cultures. The children often become the intermediaries between their parents and hearing people. The pull between deaf and hearing people forces that child to identify herself in relationship to two opposing worlds; creating a tension between the child’s deaf and hearing parts.

“When I’m sitting in a room or walking down the street, people look at me and they see this hearing person. That’s all they see. But just beneath the surface, there’s this deaf person. I’m not talking about hearing loss; I’m talking about a whole way of being. The real me is Deaf. If you want to know me, you’ve got to know that part of me.”
(Preston 1994: p, 216)

There are also subtle behavioral differences in the Deaf community compared to American society in general such as the amount of time one holds eye-contact, the grammatical as well as affective role of facial expression, the amount of interpersonal distance, the manner in which one greets others or leaves a social setting, the definition of politeness, the group approach to decision-making, and how one understands privacy and confidentiality (Harlan et al. 1996). Children naturally learn these behaviors and carry many of them into adulthood, often without being aware of their presence. Preston (1994) interviewed 150 hearing adults with deaf families from various regions of the United States and found these behaviors do have an impact on coda/hearing relationships. In a visual language such as ASL, prolonged eye contact is a natural part of communication compared to hearing people who are quite capable of carrying on a conversation while driving or cooking without more than an occasional glance at the other person. Many interviewees mentioned that prolonged eye contact often made hearing people feel uncomfortable, and several had learned not to use it as much (Preston 1994). The desire for eye contact and face-to-face communication can be challenging for a hearing person. The following excerpt between a coda man and his hearing wife illustrates this point:

“Barbara was always talking to me from the other room. And every time, I would go into the room and say, I can’t understand a thing you’re saying. And she said, “Well, I’ll just talk louder.” And I said, “No, you don’t understand, I need to see you in order to understand what you’re saying.” (Preston 1994:136)

It is for this reason that the study of codas and their bimodal bilingualism has to include understanding the role of oppression of deaf people and their language, the emphasis on monolingualism in the United States and societal bias against sign language. The idea that sign languages are not natural languages but visual representations of spoken languages continues to this day. Because language is so integral to one’s identity, (Grosjean 1982, Pierce 1995, McKay & Wong 1996, Zentella 1997, King 2000, Bonner 2001), codas cannot separate their deaf identify from ASL not their hearing identity from English. This is perhaps the first step in understanding how code-blending may play a significant role a natural cultural identifier for these bimodal bilinguals.


From 1980-1982, Millie Brother4, then a graduate student at Gallaudet University5, began interviewing people like herself who were hearing with deaf parents. What began as a brief survey to collect data for a paper, turned into many long conversations about shared experiences and childhood stories.6 The following year, Brother started a “CODA” newsletter. The acronym, CODA was inspired by the definition of the musical term. In 1986, the first CODA conference was held in Fremont, California at the California School for the Deaf. One hundred people came and the conference included both deaf and hearing people. The conference remained open to deaf and hearing people through 1989 at which point a decision was made by the members to make their conferences coda only. Membership has continued to grow since the founding of the CODA organization and outreach through international events, such as World Federation of the Deaf conference that is held every four years, have brought in many international codas as well.

The Deaf community has a unique pattern of cultural transmission that creates an ironic twist regarding cultural identities. ” Although somewhere between 11 and 30 percent of deaf schoolchildren inherit their deafness, fewer than 10 percent are born to parents who are also Deaf. Consequently, in contrast to the situation in most cultures, the great majority of individuals within the community of Deaf people do not join in at birth” (Padden & Humphries 1988, p. 5). Since the majority of deaf parents have hearing children, those children grow up culturally deaf with complete access to the language and cultural of the deaf community. Deaf children, on the other hand, are born for the most part into hearing families. They do not have complete access to spoken language and learn hearing behaviors and values from their families. Ironically, the hearing children are more culturally deaf than the deaf children. What those deaf children miss by not having deaf parents is what codas have as their birthright. In this light, it becomes clear that both sets of children need to be defined in relationship to their parents: HEARING MOTHER-FATHER DEAF or DEAF MOTHER-FATHER HEARING. The details of ones family and education are in fact part of the way deaf people (and codas) introduce themselves to each other (Lane et. al 1996).

For some members of this community the terms coda and “HEARING MOTHER-FATHER DEAF” are interchangeable. “HEARING MOTHER-FATHER DEAF” is the way codas introduce themselves for the first time to deaf people and to other codas. It is a way to show connection to and membership in the deaf community when speaking to a deaf person and a way to establish a common ground when meeting another hearing person with deaf parents. The established definition of coda includes two criteria; one must be hearing and have at least one deaf parent (Bull 1998). Bull explains that the coda label establishes there is a cultural and linguistic difference between hearing people with deaf parents and hearing people with hearing parents.

Considering the fact there are less than 500 members of CODA and hundreds of thousands of hearing people with deaf parents, it is not surprising that the word coda is not clearly understood or misapplied. People who see themselves as not quite fitting into the deaf/hearing categories choose the coda label as a way to carve out a third niche for themselves regardless of whether or not they are actively involved with the CODA organization. There is some consensus in the coda community that coda should be used to refer only to those people that have found cultural identity through self exploration via CODA conferences, retreats and other coda gatherings. For some the coda label means any hearing person with one or two deaf parents with no group affiliation required. Some deaf people apply the coda label to themselves. This may happen when the person was born hearing or hard of hearing but experienced increased hearing loss with age. This raises the question of whether ones hearing status is the determining factor. There are late-deafened parents who essentially raised their children in hearing culture but who became deaf and/or learned sign language later in life. Some of these people also label themselves as codas. This would then challenge the requirement that growing up in Deaf culture is a prerequisite for being coda.. There is still a great deal of misunderstanding (by hearing and deaf people; perhaps even by codas themselves) about who codas are and what their place is in the deaf and hearing communities. Fundamental to the coda identity is the reconciliation of one’s deaf and hearing parts. For the purposes of this study, coda will represent all hearing people with deaf parents who were raised in the Deaf community regardless of whether or not there is an affiliation with the CODA organization.


In industrialized societies the fact that a deaf person cannot hear (and therefore cannot easily communicate with hearing people) makes it difficult for deaf people to fill the range of social, education, and economic roles expected of citizens in an industrial society (Johnson 1989). Traditional societies, with a lesser emphasis on education (written language) and shared cultural values, have developed into bilingual communities in response to the presence of a high number of deaf people. “Where social access is extensive and where economic access is complete for deaf people, deafness as a political phenomenon is apparently lacking.” (Johnson 1989). Groce (1995) writes about the bilingual hearing community on Martha’s Vineyard (no longer in existence). Branson (1996) discusses a deaf village in Bali, Indonesia in which hearing people know both sign and the spoken language. In Mexico, bilingualism was the norm in a small deaf community in a traditional Yucatec Mayan village (Johnson 1989). In Brazil, an Urubu tribe was bilingual due to a high number of deaf members (Kakumasu 1969). In all these situations, hearing people adapted to the deaf members of their community and all members have full access to the social and economic aspects of their group.

The complex relationship between dominant and minority cultures influences how much and in what ways a minority community is assimilated or marginalized. In the case of deaf people, it is only through the acquisition of sign language by hearing people that the two groups have a chance to interact with each other with some degree of ease. That not being the case, the stigma associated with ASL in the United States has serious consequences for the members of that linguistic minority; deaf people and their children. The question raised in this study and one which will be researched in greater detail in the future is to what degree marginalization of the deaf community has influenced language attitudes towards English, ASL and code-blending among codas.

It is important to understand the bias towards monolingualism in present day linguistic theory in order to consider how bimodal bilingualism presents its own particular challenges for societal acceptance as well as having a value worthy of study. The roots of present day linguistic theory “has its origins in the cultural climate of western Europe and the major Anglophone countries, which attach some special significance to monolingualism and the ethos of one state-one language. At various stages in their history, most of these nations have felt that minority groups were threats to the cohesion of the state and have therefore tried to eradicate both the speakers and their language.” (Romaine 1989:6). Bilingualism has been held up to a monolingual standard and poses a threat to achieving the political ideal of a nation unified by a single language. “A linguistic minority is often considered a threat to the nation especially since nationalism has been equated with monolingualism” (Grosjean 1982:62). This position reveals an inherent belief that languages are static, unaffected by the movement and interaction of the people using them. Language policies made by different nations illustrate the belief that it is possible to keep foreign elements from creeping into the national language. This rigid perspective does not take into account the fact that even dominant languages (such as English, French, Spanish etc.) are products of external linguistic influences and in a state of constant evolution. In the United State, although linguistic minorities are tolerated to some degree, the expectation is that members of those groups “should integrate themselves into the English-speaking society as quickly as possible”. (Grosjean 1982:62). In numerous cases throughout history, misguided monolingual minorities have often determined the language use of the majority populations, creating a situation in which people have no choice but to be bilingual.7

For bimodal bilinguals there are added layers of stigma. The higher status of English in relation to ASL and the fact that ASL uses the English orthographic system for writing has perpetuated the belief that spoken language is superior to signed language. “The expected assimilation is not merely toward a particular language, but a spoken language” (Preston 1994:117). The low status of ASL affects the codas (sometimes referred to kodas kids of deaf adults) as they enter preschool or elementary school. A judgment of a deaf parent’s ability to raise hearing children may lead to placing that child in speech therapy simply because his parents are deaf (Preston 1994). There is often an assumption the children will have delay in the acquisition of spoken language because there is inadequate speech input in the home. According to several authors who have reviewed this literature, there is little evidence, other than a few studies of isolated cases, to support this notion (Singleton and Tittle 2000). Several codas recall being labeled as ‘slow learners’ or as having language difficulties. Anecdotal evidence suggests school administrators and educators often fail to recognize the bicultural and bilingual differences in these children. The topic of bicultural, bilingual children in the educational system as it relates to hearing children from deaf families needs to be researched further to determine whether these children are being assessed and/or tested based on a spoken language bias and in what ways these tests might lead to mislabeling children whose first language is a visual-gestural one,

How stigma relates to feelings about when, how and who should use coda-talk is not yet clear. There is some evidence of strong, negative views of coda-talk by codas themselves. Preston (1996) found many of his informants were highly critical of coda-talk, considering it “immature” or “a mockery of sign language “(1994:223). Further inquiries brought out a more protective feeling around coda-talk. Preston concludes, “While conceding that coda-talk captured a certain sense of the mixture of signing and speaking, most informants felt that coda-talk was intensely private and personal; public usage was tantamount to a betrayal of a family and cultural trust.” (Preston 1994:223) In videotaped interviews (Bishop and Hicks 2003), several codas echoed these sentiments and added they would be very offended if a hearing person were to use deaf voice or copy a coda’s way of speaking (code-blending).


Like many bilinguals, codas can switch back and forth between sign language and English. It is not unusual for bilingual people to code switch when talking to other bilinguals with the same language knowledge. It might be more accurate to say that it would be very unusual if bilinguals didn’t code switch when talking to other bilinguals. Extensive research has been conducted trying to pinpoint when and how bilinguals switch from one spoken language to another. Considering the fact that the majority of the world is bilingual (Grosjean 1982), code switching exemplifies the norm rather than the exception. It also speaks to how a person uses language to reflect dual cultural identities; especially when one of the cultures is marginalized. “Increasing evidence indicates that this mixed mode of speaking serves important functions in the communities where it is used and that it is not random. Nevertheless, in practically all the communities where switching and mixing of languages occurs it is stigmatized.” (Romaine 1989:5)

The Deaf community is not alone in its experience of language and cultural oppression. The Puerto Rican community in New York City provides one example of how stigma leads to using code switching as a cultural identifier and a way to strengthen community bonds. Zentella (1997), a bilingual ethnographer, worked in a barrio8 for ten years collecting data on Spanish/English bilingualism. Puerto Rican children growing up in New York City switch back and forth between English and Spanish in a way that identifies them as a “Nuyorican”. The term Nuyorican, although stigmatized for many, is itself evidence of the recognition that their identity is similar to but different from that of island Puerto Ricans and other New Yorkers (Zentella 1997).

Linguistic research has traditionally focused on the structural, linguistic outcomes of language contact situations such as lexical borrowing, loan translations and code switching. Lexical borrowing occurs when a word is taken from one language and used in another. It typically involves some phonological change of the original word that may be altered once it moves into general usage. An example is the English pronunciation of French words that are commonly used in this country such as au gratin, carte blanche and tour de force. Each of these borrowed words no longer sounds like the original French but instead carries a distinct American accent. Loan translations involve rearranging words in one language along a pattern provided by another. “Skyscraper” has been adopted into many different languages, i.e. rascacielos in Spanish (scrape + sky), created by means of a loan translation (Romaine 1989:57). Not only is the new word a literal translation of the English, the order has been reversed to fit comfortably into the adoptive language. Code switching is defined as, “the juxtaposition within the same speech exchange of passages of speech belonging to two different grammatical systems of subsystems” (Romaine 1989:121). Switching can happen at different places in speech, either within the boundaries of a clause or sentence, i.e. Yo quiero water or at clause boundaries, i.e. Yo quiero agua because I’m thirsty. Zentella’s ethnographic work with these children shows that the intermixing of two languages is a creative style of bilingual communication that accomplishes important cultural and conversational work (1997). Code switching is fundamentally a conversational activity via which speakers negotiate meaning with each other. A code switch “says it better” by capturing the meaning or expressing a point more effectively. Switching also calls attention to the fact that the members are integrating the heritages of their two worlds and that this is practiced among those that belong to that community (Zentella 1997).

The parallels between Spanish and ASL bilinguals are noteworthy. Both ASL and Spanish are considered to be minority languages (in spite of a large number of users) and the communities who use these languages have been marginalized in one way or another. Like many linguistic minorities in the United States, “the Deaf community is characterized by a language and a culture of its own; they have suffered much discrimination and prejudice in the domains of education and employment; they have adopted many of the majority’s negative attitudes toward their language and culture; and many of them are

7 Responses so far.

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