Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain – Tune In, Talk More, Take Turns by Dana Suskind, Beth Suskind, and Leslie Lewinter-Suskind.
Dutton Imprint, Penguin Random House, New York, 2015.
Adult informative non-fiction, 308 pages including index.
America experiences a significant achievement gap based on socio-economic status. Which also, based on the systemic racism endemic to America, disproportionately affects people of color. Dana Suskind has an idea about what might be causing this, and the surprisingly simple way we can close the gap and empower parents.
I was not planning to review this book here, as it’s a bit beyond the normal scope of my blog – it doesn’t focus on minorities, and the author is a white woman.
However, when reading the first chapter, I found the audism present annoying. Then, after getting into the book, I found some worthwhile information was presented, which is why this was recommended to me in the first place. Finally, checking up on the author, I learned that she was in an interracial marriage (before her husband’s tragic death) which I assume would have given her a different perspective.
The first chapter is entitled “Connections: Why a Pediatric Cochlear Implant Surgeon Became a Social Scientist.” Just the title gave me pause. If you have any connection with Deaf culture, you understand why the words cochlear implant cause tension. The first page did not alleviate this tension:
“Children who are born hearing, but in an austere language environment, are almost identical to children who are born deaf who have not received a rich sign environment. Without intervention, both can suffer the critical, lifelong effects of silence. On the other hand, children in a rich language environment, whether born hearing or given the gift of hearing via cochlear implants, can soar.” page 1
The first sentence here, referring to the need for a “rich sign environment” is okay, as is the second (it’s critical for d/Deaf children to be exposed to fluent sign language as soon as possible and for caregivers to learn sign). But the third, “the gift of hearing” is diametrically opposed to Deaf culture, where most participants believe in Deaf gain and the rich worldview, language, and culture their deafness has given them.
The rest of the chapter follows this same pattern – some basic awareness of Deaf people existing, but not enough understanding to avoid offense to Deaf people and allies. For example, in the comparison given, my immediate thought for why the boy did better was that his parents learned to sign and taught him some sign language. That was mentioned only as an aside, and never returned to again, but to me, that was a clear example of why he succeeded.
Some Good and Bad
Suskind also has some idea that Sign is a language, but no real concept of it. She reacts to it rather as I would Chinese, except that she inadvertently blunders in a way I hope my friends would prevent me from doing! When Sign is acknowledged, the focus is always the race against time to implant children so they can learn English as native speakers rather than struggling to learn it later in life.
On the other hand, Suskind does share stories from a variety of socio-economic statuses including a Muslim family whose adult son wants an implant against the advice of doctors who explain he will not be able to hear language at his age. She is quick to point out that families who talk, and talk positively with their children, and where at least one caregiver shares a real connection to the child, have similar outcomes to “professional” families whatever their educational or income level, and that “professional” families can have negative results too.
Suskind’s ideas also have merit once the audism is overlooked. Her thoughts can be very helpful to foster and adoptive parents as well as biological parents in disadvantaged communities, or those in minority groups seeking advice on child-rearing. I liked that her group asks parents to become advocates and empowers them to make choices that ensure their children’s future. The people who actually will be affected need to be included in conversations as much as possible.
This book has useful insights, and an interesting concept. I wished for more sensitivity to Deaf culture and consideration of ASL as a language. For example, it rankled when Suskind was talking about the importance of ESL parents using their mother tongue to speak to their children, given that she did not extend the same idea to Deaf parents signing to their child.
If Suskind wasn’t a cochlear implant specialist and hadn’t spent the first chapter dwelling on the importance of hearing, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the rest. But that first chapter set me up for a close scrutiny. Access to a wide variety of fluent communication is crucial. Just as hearing (or implanted) children need to hear many different words over and over again, Deaf children need to see many different words repeatedly.
I’ve never heard of a hearing child of Deaf parents unable to speak. The issue in families with Deaf children is that the adults speak a language inaccessible to their child. The sad fact is that many if not most hearing parents choose never to learn their child’s primary language, a fact that saddens me as much as international adoptive parents adopting a child who speaks another language without learning even a few basic phrases in that language.
This book perpetuates the myth that Sign is not a real language, so if the concept interests you, I’d recommend that you check it out from the library and read chapter five. The idea is intriguing and worthy of further study, though the book is overly long and audistic.