Research Article: Hearing children of Deaf parents: Gender and birth order in the delegation of the interpreter role in culturally Deaf families

Date Published: April 30, 2018

Publisher: AOSIS

Author(s): Nomfundo F. Moroe, Victor de Andrade.


Culturally, hearing children born to Deaf parents may have to mediate two different positions within the hearing and Deaf cultures. However, there appears to be little written about the experiences of hearing children born to Deaf parents in the South African context.

This study sought to investigate the roles of children of Deaf adults (CODAs) as interpreters in Deaf-parented families, more specifically, the influence of gender and birth order in language brokering.

Two male and eight female participants between the ages of 21 and 40 years were recruited through purposive and snowball sampling strategies. A qualitative design was employed and data were collected using a semi-structured, open-ended interview format. Themes which emerged were analysed using thematic analysis.

The findings indicated that there was no formal assignment of the interpreter role; however, female children tended to assume the role of interpreter more often than the male children. Also, it appeared as though the older children shifted the responsibility for interpreting to younger siblings. The participants in this study indicated that they interpreted in situations where they felt they were not developmentally or emotionally ready, or in situations which they felt were better suited for older siblings or for siblings of another gender.

This study highlights a need for the formalisation of interpreting services for Deaf people in South Africa in the form of professional interpreters rather than the reliance on hearing children as interpreters in order to mediate between Deaf and hearing cultures.

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Globally, it is suggested that 90% of people with audiological deafness who have children have hearing children (Christodoulou et al. 2009). International studies conducted on hearing children of deaf parents show that these children are raised in families where there appears to be unique dynamics in relation to hearing children born to hearing parents. Authors such as Preston (1995) report that hearing children of Deaf parents are raised in unique, extraordinary family settings as they may be exposed to and interact with two differing cultural, social and linguistic systems: one of their Deaf parents and the Deaf community and one of hearing peers and adults. What makes these family settings unique is the fact that cultures differ in a sense that the Deaf community uses Sign Language as a mode of communication, whereas the hearing community uses spoken language to communicate. Therefore, the lives of hearing children of Deaf adults (CODAs) may inherently incorporate the ambiguity of being culturally ‘Deaf’ and yet functionally hearing. As a result, these families, more specifically the CODAs, may then need to bridge the gap between the hearing and Deaf worlds and, therefore, may face unique communication and cultural challenges (Clark 2003). In general, there is very limited research on the experiences of CODAs in South Africa. Therefore, this study seeks to capture and highlight the experiences of hearing children born to Deaf parents in South Africa. More specifically, this study aims to describe the delegation of the language broker role in Deaf-parented families and to understand the dynamics that gender and birth order may play in the delegation of this role.

Before commencing the study, approval was obtained from the University of the Witwatersrand’s Human Research Ethics committee (non-medical) (Protocol number: H110922). Furthermore, ethical aspects such as confidentiality and rights to withdraw from the study were considered. Anonymity, however, was not guaranteed as snowball sampling was utilised in this study.

The analysis of the interviews suggested that there were no formal rules when it came to assigning the role of interpreter in the family because CODAs reported that they had had to interpret for their parents at some point in time, regardless of the CODAs’ birth order or gender. For example, Participant 1 explained that, in her family, no one was formally asked to be the interpreter, ‘No one was given the role to interpret at home. We all interpret. Whoever is there interprets. No one was chosen to do it’. Furthermore, participants expressed that they would assume the role of interpreter out of necessity, without realising that this is what they are doing. Participant 7 made this point salient when she said:

The objective of this study was to explore the influence of CODAs’ gender and birth order on language brokering in the culturally Deaf family. From this study, it was apparent that all the participants interpreted for their Deaf parents, even those who may have not wanted to do so because of the nature of the content, being shy and embarrassed of having Deaf parents or not wanting to draw attention from the hearing community. More specifically, in this study, the role of a language broker was delegated to the youngest child, which is different from previous studies in the field where, for example, Buchino (1993) and Preston (1994) found that the oldest child interpreted for the parents. The difference in results of these studies conducted in the 1990s and the current study show that, although the research interest in CODAs may have waned, it still remains vital to conduct ongoing research in the area because it is apparent that there are changes in the pattern of CODA interpreting roles across time and in different contexts. However, the findings of this study indicate that younger siblings may be assigned the role of taking care of the communication needs of the parents when the older siblings move out of home. This shift in responsibility may explain the difference between the studies conducted in the USA (Buchino 1993; Preston 1994) and this study conducted in South Africa. This accentuates the need for ongoing and context-based research.

Cognisant of the contextual constraints and resource limitations in South Africa for people who are Deaf, the recommendations may seem lofty and aspirational but are necessary in terms of planning and resource allocation. This study highlights the pressure placed on CODAs to interpret for their Deaf parents, thereby highlighting the need for official and non-family member interpreters for Deaf families. The availability of interpreters will alleviate the pressure placed on CODAs, who currently find themselves interpreting in situations that are not ideal emotionally, developmentally and psychosocially. In order to facilitate the availability of professional interpreters for Deaf people, there is the need for formalisation of interpreting services for Deaf people in South Africa rather than the reliance on CODAs to interpret. However, as mentioned earlier, this aspiration is idealistic within the resource-constrained context of South Africa and points to the need of exploring greater budget allocations for interpreting services, not as a nice-to-have but as an essential component of service provision and human rights. For example, the allocations made for interpreters of spoken languages such as Afrikaans, isiZulu, isiXhosa and the other official languages need to account for the needs of people whose first language is SASL. These alternatives could offer support for CODAs while, admittedly, not resolving their challenges because it creates a space for freedom from the imposition upon them, especially for young females. The recommendation by the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) that SASL should be recognised as an official language may go a long way towards legitimising and formalising language services for people who are Deaf, which, in turn, may have a positive spin-off on CODAs by alleviating them of their added, and often onerous, responsibility. Therefore, this recommendation by PanSALB is encouraged as this endorsement and recognition by government would have to provide for the training of interpreters and would also have to create opportunities for families from lower socio-economic backgrounds to access interpreter services. This right to interpreting services would then be entrenched in the people’s constitutional rights.

This current study sampled participants from Gauteng, a more urban and economically active province in South Africa; therefore, the participants’ experiences cannot be seen to be representative of all hearing children born to Deaf parents across South Africa, as the experiences of hearing children residing in other provinces may differ from the experiences of CODAs interviewed in this study.

As not much is known about CODAs in South Africa and the current study explored the experiences of a cohort of CODAs in Gauteng only, it may be beneficial to conduct a similar study in other provinces of South Africa. Also, a larger sample of CODAs may add more richness and more information on the experiences of CODAs in all the provinces across South Africa.




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