Papua New Guinea 14 year old

Valerie Sutton Sutton at SIGNWRITING.ORG
Wed Oct 23 00:38:42 UTC 2002

SignWriting List
October 22, 2002

Dear SW List -
This is a little confusing...I received an email message saying that Antony and Daamen couldn't reach James Shepard-Kegl, so I sent their message to James for them. But then, when James sent me his answer back, I can't seem to reach Antony and Daamen in return, myself - ha! Meanwhile, I believe all this was meant for the List anyway, so here is the original message, plus James's response below - Thank you, Antony, Daamen and James, for this interesting topic -

Val ;-)


> From: Valerie Sutton <Sutton at>
> Date: Tue, 22 Oct 2002 12:45:59 -0700
> To: kegl at MAINE.RR.COM
> Cc: atdaamen at
> Subject: James...Did you ever see this email to you?
> Date: Thu, 25 Jul 2002
> From: Antony & Terry Daamen <atdaamen at>
> 25/07/02
> Dear Valerie, I was trying to send this email to James and Judy Kegl
> privately, but this email 'bounced'.
> Dear James and Judy Kegl,
> Hi how are you both?  I went to Cairns for my interpreters accreditation
> and in the office there I saw something that might interest you and I want
> some advice.
> (You need your world map maybe) In Papua New Guinea (PNG as it is called)
> was a Deaf boy with the tribes over there and living in a similar way as
> the Deaf people in Nicaragua.  He is very good at the daily tasks in their
> life like fishing, catching animals for food etc.
> However, he has very little language!  So the father and son have moved to
> Thursday Island (T.I. for short) in the hope that his son Michael (14 years
> old!) could have an education!
> In the interpreter's office in Cairns  was a note on the notice board where
> a teacher of the TI State School asked for a teacher's aid to move to TI
> and help with teaching this boy Auslan!!  I rang the teacher (Jenny Waine)
> and she would like somebody to come over and "immerse Michael in Auslan"
> They (teacher's etc from that school) themselves don't have the time to
> spend with him.  This would mean teaching his whole community (family,
> relatives, friends, TEACHERS etc) Auslan and all of them signing to him and
> one another, RIGHT?
> My wife is not interested in moving to TI, so we will need to look for
> somebody else.  However, I would like to know if it is possible to teach
> him language?  I remember from your video or wherever that from 0-5 years
> old is the primary window of opportunity to learn language, but that up to
> 12 some language can be learned.  What about 14?
> My heart goes out to the boy.  Jenny was saying that his father
> communicates by ......pointing!!  No rudimentary home sign for drink or
> whatever just pointing.  E.g. point to the food, then his mouth means "eat
> this"!
> What can be done? How?
> I suggested to contact the PNG's Deaf community, rather then the
> Australian because we have a different language.  The PNG and the TI people
> are different people with different language.  The aboriginals on mainland
> Australia are divided in many different tribes that don't understand one
> another tribal language...
> So how can a white Dutch man with a white Deaf wife speaking English and
> signing Auslan be of help?
> I think it would be better if a Deaf Islander couple or PNG people with PNG
> Sign Language skills could move there?
> Thanks for any advice you can give us
> See Ya,
> Antony & Terry Daamen


James' message.....

Date: Tue, 22 Oct 2002 19:24:51 -0500
Subject: Re: Papua New Guinea 14 year old
From: "Judy A. Kegl" <kegl at>

Antony & Daamen,

I cannot explain why e-mail to us bounced back  (kegl at, but

The first question is whether this 14 year old youth is capable of learning
a language.  I have no way of knowing whether he is merely deaf or has
suffered damage to the language processing areas of his brain, as can happen
with menningitis at times, for example.  But, assuming he functions normally
on a cognitive level, then there remains the problem of his age.  Based upon
our observations and those of other linguists, he is already past the
critical age for first language acquisition.  But, do not despair.  All this
means is that he probably cannot ACQUIRE language at a very sophisticated
level simply from exposure -- the way infants can.  If we talk to an infant
50% of the time in full, grammatically correct sentences and the other 50%
of the time in bits and pieces, but not full sentences, then the infant will
have no problem producing complete sentences.  The young child's language
acquisition process is not hindered by our failure to speak using intact
sentences all the time.  That's because the child innately has an
expectation of the underlying grammar and syntax anyway -- what Chompsky
refers to as Universal Grammar, or as an innate Language Acquisition Device
(if memory serves me).  The 14 year old does not have those skills -- at
least not to the level of the young child.

Alright, if he cannot ACQUIRE the language, can he instead LEARN it -- that
is, can language be affirmatively taught?  Our experience with late language
learners strongly suggests the following:

1) Late language learners, when exposed to fluent signers, will show small
gains almost immediately, and dramatic improvement after two weeks.  Bear in
mind that almost anything constitutes dramatic improvement when you are
effectively starting at zero.
2) Late language learners can be taught to critically analyze language
structure.  This means that someone has to teach grammar labels, concepts,
3) Learning language is very difficult.  The rate of learning quickly
plateaus and educators can become frustrated.  We have had young adults in
immersion programs for YEARS with very slow improvement, followed by
DRAMATIC progress.  We realized that in most educational settings, the
teachers would have given up on these students after two or three years.
4) A late language learner really has to work at getting his sentences
right; if he grows fatigued, his communication abilities begin to collapse.
5) Late language learners never master language at the sophistication or
richness exhibited by young native signers.  But, so what!  They can still
communicate quite effectively and can understand complex and abstract
6) The only way to make this really work is through language immersion --
which means this young man needs to be in a Deaf community.  If you are not
prepared to do that, then all you are really planning to do is to equip him
with some more labels for things.
7) I do not know what would be in the best interests of this lad.  From an
educational standpoint, since he is living in language isolation, then the
best thing would be to remove him from his present environment and integrate
him with "his own kind" -- "his kind" being defined as any Deaf community
(using AUSLAN or some other sign language, it does not really matter.)  I
stress that I am not saying that the best educational option is also the
most ETHICAL option.  One cannot simply remove a human from his family, his
geographical community and the support group he has known his entire life.
Besides, at 14 he has to want to go.

When we take a young child out of a rain forest community, it is at the
insistence of the parents.  We have to place the child in a stable foster
care setting with other signing children (and adults who sign), and, of
course, he is in a school for Deaf.  We return the child to his parents for
vacations, but the reality is once you have been to the city, you can't go
back to the farm.  (A 14 year old is not a "young child"; adjustment
difficulties would range from minimal to untenable, depending upon the

In short, when a deaf child lives in a community with no other deaf people,
then a decision has to be made whether or not he is better off remaining
languageless in that community or moving to a different setting where he can
be immersed in sign language -- and world knowledge.  Putting aside the
financial aspects and the emotional and time commitments, we are left with
the issue of who even has the right to make the determination.

Okay, his father wants to take him to T.I. for an education.  The idea
apparently is to mainstream him, with an interpreter as an accommodation.
My opinion is that this option should not be encouraged.  A languageless
deaf lad cannot be "immersed in AUSLAN" by some hearing teacher.  I think he
needs to be enrolled in a school for Deaf.  The first few months would
likely prove to be an emotionally trying experience, especially to his
self-esteem, but true immersion -- over years -- is the only way, I believe.

Another alternative -- one that really entails commitment -- would be to
document how many other PNG deaf children are in a similar predicament.
This would be a prelude to bringing them altogether in some central location
and then bringing native signers as teachers to them.

Alas, no easy answers....

-- James Shepard-Kegl

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