Kimberly Sanzo, MS, CCC-SLP
Language deprivation is the term used for when a child does not have access to a naturally occurring language during their critical language-learning years. There are a handful of famous examples of this phenomenon throughout history; hearing children that were neglected or lost and therefore not exposed to language. The less famous yet more common examples are those of deaf children who are not exposed to sign language.
Although language deprivation is not unique to deaf babies— hearing babies in the NICU are at risk for language deprivation as well— the current system for educating parents on their deaf child fosters a biased approach that often leads to language deprivation.
Because language and cognition are so intertwined, when a child is deprived of a first language (L1) during their critical period, the resulting deficits include significant delays in cognitive and linguistic functions. For example, a child with language deprivation demonstrates deficits in executive functioning (EF), the constellation of cognitive functions that occur in the frontal lobe of the brain.
This includes things like planning, organizing, problem solving, attention, and memory. Children with language deprivation also demonstrate difficulty with other cognitive abilities such as linear constructs like sequencing, concepts of time, and spatial organization.
The deficits in language function seen in these children include difficulty understanding and using question forms, agrammatical syntax, and a vocabulary that is limited to concrete objects or things that have been directly experienced. These characteristics are also present in sign language if a child learns that language as an L1 outside of the critical period.
Fortunately, language deprivation in deaf children has a known cause and a cure. The cure is early and robust access to a signed language. Because signed languages are the only languages that are 100% accessible to a deaf child, we can be sure that the child’s brain is receiving language input.