8 June 2004

Hear me out: lamenting a silent language falling out of favour

Chevoy Brown will never forget her son's first word. At seven months, Jarrod reached out to her, opening and clenching his hand. He was saying 'light' in Auslan - the sign language his parents had been using constantly around him since he had been diagnosed profoundly deaf a month earlier.

Ms Brown rejected the offer of a cochlear implant, concerned that if it failed to boost Jarrod's hearing sufficiently for him to acquire spoken English, he would miss crucial stages in language-related brain development that occur in early childhood.

Today, Ms Brown says, her conversations with the gregarious seven-year-old are every bit as sophisticated as those she had with her hearing daughter at the same age.

But Jarrod's first language could die out within half a generation, according to new analysis - a casualty of changing patterns of deafness and a trend towards deaf children attending mainstream schools.

This is actually fairly sad. AusLan is a distinct language, not signed English. Its grammar is radically different. Languages with shrinking use communities do not have a stable future.

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