Associate professor takes part in multilingual miracle in France

Jim Carlson
April 20, 2021

Long-term research by a Penn State College of Education associate professor is revealing new insights into multilingual deaf students’ language practices that opens a window to make visible our broader understandings of deaf and hearing multilingual learners’ creativity in putting to use multi-modal and multi-sensorial communicative practices in their everyday lives.

Joe Valente

Associate Professor Joseph Valente

IMAGE: Steve Tressler

Joseph Valente, professor-in-charge for early childhood education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction (C&I) and director of the Center for Disability Studies, researches young, deaf children, their language and school socialization. He is working with the first bilingual deaf program in France to be recognized by the Ministry of National Education after a 200-year ban on sign language and deaf bilingual education in that country.

Valente first filmed kindergartners in Ramonville, a suburb in the Toulouse area of France, about eight years ago when the program was still considered experimental. Now, this bilingual deaf education program is one of two formally recognized by the United Nations as an exemplary model of inclusive mainstream schooling for deaf students. This deaf bilingual education program is unique because it is embedded in a hearing, local elementary school.

In early 2020, Valente was awarded a Research Initiation Grant from C&I to return to France to re-interview those same students, now in junior high school, while also sharing films from their kindergarten classroom almost a decade ago.

Valente’s sociolinguistic video ethnographic research investigates how deaf multilingual children make use of communicative and community practices as resources for navigating the multiple, fluid and ever-emergent deaf-deaf and deaf-hearing spaces of their classroom and deaf and hearing school community. He also investigated how deaf children, as well as their parents and teachers, think about their own and other children’s multilingual and inclusive communicative and community practices.

This was the first cross-national study of deaf bilingual kindergartners in a classroom with a deaf teacher and using sign language/writing as the primary mode of communication, as opposed to speech-only, which is the dominant approach around the world, said Valente, who himself is deaf.

Valente said these follow-up interviews gave him insight into how the students developed close relationships from kindergarten to junior high. “Which is unusual because most kids, like myself … I never knew a deaf person until I was an adult, and 96% of deaf kids were born to hearing parents, so opportunities to meet another deaf person are rare,” he said.

“This school has deaf teachers who are the first deaf teachers to get certified in France and their curriculum is based on collaborations between linguists at the University of Paris VIII and deaf educators; it’s a very innovative program that is fast becoming recognized worldwide as an exemplary model for deaf bilingual education," he added.

Valente said many of the Toulouse students attend college, which goes against the norm.

“Academic, mental health and employment outcomes for deaf students in France are abysmal; 50% of deaf students achieve a high school education; 30% of deaf adults are unemployed. Only about 20% of deaf kids go to college and only between 20% and 43% of them graduate. The average deaf kid who graduates in the United States graduates with a fourth-grade reading level … fifth-grade math,” Valente said.

“Nearly 40% of deaf people require hospitalization and outpatient therapy. In short, the outcomes for the deaf are atrocious; they’re actually the worst outcomes of any language minoritized student. This school is nothing short of a miracle and I’ve been trying to do everything I can to document its rise and do a longitudinal study on them," he said. "I’m trying to get (grant) money to just keep following these kids."

Valente said research outcomes are showing that the deaf students in the study are scoring average or above the average of what is expected for a hearing student and they are ascending to secondary education. “In terms of their literacy outcomes and things like that, they’re doing significantly better than the kids that don’t have these advantages,” he said.

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Last Updated April 20, 2021