Most of us are familiar with sign language but few people know much about cued speech, an increasingly popular alternative means of communication for hearing impaired individuals. In a nutshell, cued speech uses hand-shapes and placement, combined with mouth movements, in order to communicate.
Though gaining in popularity, cued speech has also come to be a point of controversy in the deaf and hearing-impaired community.
How Cued Speech Works
The National Cued Speech Association considers cued speech to be the “visible counterpart of spoken language,” a helpful comparison when explaining just how cueing works. Spoken language is based on phonemes, the smallest units of sound in a language. Combining the individual sounds of various phonemes creates words and sentences. Phonemes can therefore be seen as the “building blocks” of any language.
In cued speech, these “building blocks” consist of visible hand and mouth movements, which essentially represent the phonemes of the language visually. When a string of these visible signals are combined, words and phrases are formed – just as in spoken language, where sounds are strung together to create words and sentences.
Pros and Cons of Cued Speech
Although cued speech and sign language may seem identical to a layman, the two communication systems are vastly different at a very basic level. While cued speech represents the individual sounds of words via a system of visual phonetics, sign language primarily uses hand and body movement to signal concrete words and concepts.
One advantage cued speech has over sign language systems like American Sign Language is that it is more quickly learned. Since it represents sounds, learning the basics of cueing requires far less time than learning the thousands of symbol-like signals that can constitute a sign language system.
Other arguments supporting cued speech have suggested that it can be used to improve literacy among the deaf and hearing-impaired. Given that hearing children learn their ABC’s and basic phonetics before they learn to read, it makes sense that learning a visual system of phonetics and then applying it to written symbols would help the hearing-impaired learn to read.
The main disadvantage of cued speech is its current lack of popularity: sign language is still the predominant form of communication among the hearing-impaired, so those who master cued speech may find they have limited outlets for cueing. There have also been questions as to whether cued speech is as fast as using sign language.
Cued Speech vs. Sign Language Controversy
Sign language’s continued popularity over cued speech is not surprising given that cued speech is much younger: while the first official system of sign language dates back to the early 18th century, the first official cued speech system was only implemented in the 1960s!
Since then, cued speech has been adapted to more than 50 languages and dialects. Despite this growing popularity, the use of cued speech has sparked some debate.
A 2010 Washington Post article concerning a Rockville couple’s choice to teach their children cued speech highlights some of the controversy surrounding cueing, which is often thought of as “too oral” by the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
While it’s highly unlikely that cueing will ever replace sign language, its benefits are becoming increasingly clear. It’s possible that in the future, deaf and hard-of-hearing children will be taught both cued speech and sign language to maximize their opportunities for communication and literacy.