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One would think it only natural that sign language be the main means of communicating and teaching at schools for the hearing-impaired, but in Japan the spoken word generally comes first.

Late last month, 43 deaf children and 64 of their parents submitted a petition to the Japan Federation of Bar Associations in which they claimed that their children’s right to education was being infringed upon because school lessons are not given in Japanese sign language.

Japanese sign language, which has a different grammatical structure from spoken Japanese, is the natural language for most people who were born deaf or lost their hearing before acquiring Japanese-language skills, according to Midori Okamoto, one of the parents who submitted the petition.

Schools for the hearing-impaired, however, mainly conduct lessons using an aural-oral approach, in which students wear special hearing aids and listen to teachers speaking Japanese. Children who are totally deaf, or near that level, however, are effectively stymied by this approach.

The petition demands that the education ministry make sign language the main means of communication and classroom instruction at schools and train teachers to carry this out.

Okamoto’s daughter, Midoriko, 13, told a news conference after the action was taken that she wants to be taught in sign language, not in a voice she can barely hear.

“I do not understand my lessons,” Okamoto said through signing. “It doesn’t mean I cannot work out the problems (teachers ask), but I don’t understand what the teachers are (verbally) asking.”

She said children with partial hearing impairments also often have difficulty understanding what their teachers are saying, even with the hearing aids, and thus it is cruel to subject deaf children, or those who are essentially deaf, to the same means of communication applied to students who are able to hear.

Although some high school teachers use what is known as signed Japanese, a sign language directly translated from spoken Japanese, it is difficult for deaf children who use Japanese sign language as their natural means of communication to understand it, according to Okamoto.

“Our children are not satisfied with teachers (who cannot communicate with them in Japanese sign language),” she said. “We worry that the children’s academic abilities will not be fully developed (under the current teaching method).”

It takes a lot of time for students to understand what their teachers are saying, thus the lessons do not proceed at a proper pace, said a deaf woman who also signed the petition and has two children who attend an elementary school and kindergarten for the deaf.

The woman, who asked that her name not be used, said that when she was a senior at a high school for the deaf, the class was using a textbook for second-year junior high students.

Darlene Ewan, an American teacher for the hearing-impaired who serves as an adviser at a Tokyo-based nonprofit educational institution that teaches Japanese sign language to deaf children, said 27 countries, including the United States, Canada, Sweden, Denmark and Thailand, have recognized their own sign language as a language for the deaf and use it as the main communication tool in schools for the hearing-impaired.

“I think the situation in Japan for deaf children is not in as good a shape as it should be,” Ewan said in a written message, adding that deaf children should receive a bilingual education — in Japanese sign language and written Japanese.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry said its policy regarding deaf education is to place priority on having the children learn Japanese through using their sense of hearing, even it is impaired. Other means of communication, including sign language, should be learned afterward, ministry officials said.

But Okamoto argued that children can learn written and spoken Japanese much faster when they use sign language. For example, it is easier for them to learn how to pronounce a word when they are taught the movements of the tongue in the sign language.

“I believe Japanese sign language, which is the mother tongue of deaf children, is necessary to acquire Japanese skills,” she said.

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