Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Language socialization in deaf families in Africa

Across cultures, parents help their children master the social and linguistic codes needed in adult life. Recent research on language socialization found important cross-cultural differences, pointing out the need for more diversity for a full understanding of this process. Deaf communities form unique subcultures with their own language, distinct from the mainstream culture. This project is the first large-scale, cross-cultural comparison in this domain. Deaf and hearing researchers will chart the language socialization of children of deaf adults in five African countries, comparing a) responsiveness and reciprocity in interactions and b) language socialization. We will compile an annotated, searchable database that can serve other researchers too. The project will shed new light on cross-cultural patterns in language socialization. Furthermore, it will create awareness about the situation of deaf parents and their children, and provide new opportunities for the academic development of talented deaf people in Africa.

2017 - 2019
Victoria Nyst
Leids Universiteits Fonds Leids Universiteits Fonds
Figure 1. Deaf mother (Côte d’Ivoire) using gestures instead of lexical signs with her child.

Parenting and language socialization in deaf families

All over the world, children face the challenge of mastering the social and linguistic rules of their community. This process of language socialization is characterized by similarities, but also striking differences across cultures. The field of language socialization is mainly based on mainstream families in so-called WEIRD (short for "Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic”) cultures. Recent studies broadening the scope to include more cultural diversity reveals important differences (Mesman et al. 2012).

Deaf communities are culturally and linguistically distinct communities, using their own language: a sign language.  Within the field of Deaf Studies, children of deaf adults (in short, CODAs) present a unique sub-group, growing up as hearing children in a deaf world, often acquiring a native command of the sign language of their parents. Research in Western countries finds that deaf mothers –like hearing mothers– use an adapted language form when addressing their child; motherese. Another aspect of the interaction between the deaf mother and the child is the necessity of establishing visual attention in the child. Contrary to hearing children learning of hearing parents, CODAs learning a sign language can actively open or close the communicative channel by directing the eye gaze to or away from the mother. So far, all studies on these topics concern deaf parents in Western countries, raising the question to what extent these phenomena characterize deaf parenting in other parts of the world.  Preliminary analysis of a pilot study with two deaf caregivers in Côte d’Ivoire shows a so far undescribed form of adaptation in child-directed signing in that the mother uses gestures instead of lexical signs to interact with the child.

Studies on paenting strategies predominantly concern hearing families in Western cultures. Recent research on parenting in other cultures has identified important differences, notably in the number of caregivers and in foster-child practices. In Western societies, the main care giver of a child is its mother in general. In many non-Western cultures, including African ones, children are actively taken care of by a number of care givers other than the parents. These caregivers may be older siblings, aunts, grand-mothers or other relatives of the child. This, system of multiple-caregivers affects the (multilingual) language socialization process of the child. Similarly, the common practice of raising children in families other than their families of birth influences the language socialization process, such as being exposed to interpersonal variation and multiple languages and language ideologies. The pilot study indicates that this latter practice may be of particular relevance for our study, as various cases were identified in which young CODAs in Côte d’Ivoire were found to be raised in (related) hearing families –with or without the consent of the deaf parents-to learn the spoken language.

The aim of this project is to shed light on the questions i) whether, and if so how, deaf parents in different cultural communities establish reciprocal and responsive interactions with their young children, ii) how the language socialization and development of these children compare, and iii) whether, and if so how, the language socialization of deaf parents differs from hearing parents. To explore these questions , we will create a unique, longitudinal video database of the interactional environment of children (deaf and hearing) of deaf caregivers in  five  African countries, namely Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, and Zambia.


After 15 years of research on African sign languages, the LUCL has a large network of African students working in the area of Deaf Studies and/or Sign Language Linguistics. These students include talented deaf Africans, who managed to secure basic academic training. These deaf researchers are well-embedded in their local deaf communities in Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana, , and Zambia. A fifth -hearing- researcher is writing his thesis on a SL in Côte d’Ivoire, under our supervision. Being part of the network of deaf parents of their deaf communities, they are ideally placed to collect naturalistic, longitudinal data on the interactional environment of CODAs in Africa. 

In each country, data will be collected for 10 children (deaf and hearing) of deaf adults (CODAs). The rough data will consist of recurring video recordings of structured and naturalistic interaction of the child with its primary caregiver(s), with intervals of about eight weeks over a period of one year (ca. 6 sessions). All interactions will be recorded with two HD cameras. The video recordings will be processed and coded by the deaf research  assistants using ELAN. To streamline the technicalities of annotating, exchanging and storing video data and the compilation of the database, a (ideally deaf) Leiden-based student assistant will be support the team.

For the analysis of the nature and quality of parent-child interactions in terms of primary intersubjectivity (dyadic attention and interaction), secondary intersubjectivity (joint attention for an external object, event or person), and sensitive responsiveness to children’s communicative signals, coding protocol from the field of child and family studies (as used by Mesman) will be employed. The communicative/linguistic utterances of the child and the caregivers and other people present will be analysed in terms of the features identified in the literature as qualifying child-directed signing (motherese) and the training of visual attention in the child. Further, interviews with the caregivers will be conducted to assess their ideas and beliefs with respect to parenting, their child, deafness and the use of the various languages in the environment (sign language, gestures, local, spoken languages, official language). The documented data will be complemented with participant observation. The data will be analysed from a pedagogical perspective by Prof. Mesman (specialist in pedagogy), focusing on dyadic attention processes and sensitive responsiveness to children’s signals, and by Dr. Nyst (specialist in African sign languages) and Prof. Mous (specialist in African spoken languages) from a linguistic perspective, looking at the signed and spoken language input and development of the children.


The primary results of this project will be a unique, richly annotated database on child development and a collection of publications. The database will be the first in its kind that contains video data on the socialization environment of CODAs in Africa. The results of the project will be published in international peer-reviewed journals, co-authored by the deaf research assistants.

The project will also have important societal impact. Participation in this project will serve as an important step towards opening up more academic perspectives for the deaf research assistants involved. The availability of the longitudinal video database and the experience gained by the assistants in collecting, annotating and managing the data will give the deaf researchers a much-needed head-start when applying for funding to further their research careers in the form of an MA training or a PhD in the field of linguistics and/or pedagogy. The outcomes of this study will serve to provide governments and NGOs with evidence-based information on the child-raising capacities of deaf parents in the participating countries. Where necessary, specific advice will be formulated to improve care. To this end, three concrete activities will be developed. A short video clip summarizing the main results of the project in various languages (including a sign language) will be made available online. Information folders will be printed with the same information, as well as a QR code linking to the online video clip. In each country, the deaf researcher will visit the national association of parents of deaf children to present the results of the project, show the video clip and distribute the folder.

In the last year, a public event on the theme ‘Deaf Parenting in Africa’ will be organized for NGOs and individuals working with deaf people in Africa. This event will take place simultaneously in Leiden and one of the participating countries, with live-streamed presentations by participants in both locations.


  • Year 1: design of database structure, training of assistants, data collection & annotation, start of analysis data
  • Year 2: Analysis of data, publishing of results (applicants), Creation of folder & video clip (deaf research assistant & assistant in Leiden), visiting of Associations of Parents of Deaf Children (deaf research assistants), closing conference with live-streaming in Leiden and Africa



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