Teaching the Deaf — The deal with language

“Oh wow, that sounds rewarding.”

“Do you know sign language?”

“Ohh deaf education.  I thought you said “death” education.”

These are the three most common replies I encounter when telling someone about my current studies.  The third one is actually the most common, and usually followed by the first — apparently educating people about death is currently on the forefront of the public consciousness.

I’ve already semi-answered the “Do you know sign language” question in another post, but I’d like to answer it more fully now.

No, I don’t know sign language, but I’m (very slowly) working on it.  Earlier this month, in a fit of zealous optimism (the only way I can describe making February resolutions), I decided to learn one sign a day.  Which, living with a native signer, is hardly a difficult task.  I’ve learned some basic words so far, most of which can be used in polite company, and hope to get a few more down before summer.  The beauty of sign language is that a) it’s sort of sloppy, so sometimes messing up a sign almost makes you look more fluent and b) if you can’t remember a sign you can make something up and have a good shot at guessing it correctly.  Kind of like guessing Swedish words by using an English word with a weird vowel stress.

I’m currently reading “The Miracle of Language” by Richard Lederer, which is thus far a lovely read, if only because he references Roald Dahl and Lewis Carrol.  Language has always fascinated me — the philosophical idea of language constructing our reality, and the consistently mind-boggling realization that it truly separates us from animals.  I am blessed with the combination of having a terrible memory and being easily enthused about concepts and ideas.  This means that I am able to rediscover old thoughts and get equally excited about them every time.  Basically: every time I pause and consider the implications of language and the beauty and detail of our communication, I get excited.

**

The sign for “Thank you” is taking your hand, keeping it flat, and bringing it up to your lips and then moving it down away from you.  The sign for “Good” is essentially the same.  I learned these two this summer because most of the girls in my program have a signing background, and “Thank you” and “Good” happen to come up quite frequently.

All of this to say: though our program is oral, none of us are “anti-signing”.  We are being trained to teach students to listen and talk, but we still respect parents who choose sign for their children.  And our cohort is required to take a signing class from a Deaf teacher in order to graduate.

When I first started the program, I was easily distracted during lectures because my roommate (who is in the program) had interpreters in some of the classes and I would stare at them as they signed to her.  I was captivated by the expressive movements, the fluid hands, the theatrical faces; there is so much beauty captured in the physical expression of language.  One of the interpreters had actually become an interpreter because he had been in a class with a deaf student and was mesmerized by the sign interpretation.

**

I like words.  I like to play with them, toss them, use them to evoke thoughts, create images, guide minds, share ideas.  Yet it has only been during this semester that I have realized that I have stumbled from one wordsy profession (journalism) to another.  Basically: I’m being trained to be a teacher of language.

“A Teacher of the Deaf is a Teacher of Language.” One of my professors said this (about seven times for good measure), and I immediately recognized it as the crux of my studies that I had previously left unlabeled.  We talk about access, about speech, about acoustics and audiology and visual aids and vocabulary gaps — but what we’re really talking about is language.  Communication.  How can I — as a being sharing space with you — share with you how I feel?  I am hot, I am hungry, I have memories from after the age of four (but not before), I believe in souls, I like your hair, I shrink clothes in the dryer, I think about life too much or not enough or just the right amount.

Most of our relating — from the most banal to the deeply profound — is done through language.  And to most of us, it’s breathing.  We don’t notice it unless there is an interference (ie. navigating a foreign country).  Furthermore, to most of us, acquiring it is also breathing.  It’s instinctive, almost automatic: we hear language and eventually start repeating it and develop a natural fluency.

But deaf children — even ones with aids or implants — don’t have full access to sound, and therefore, language.  Depending on their hearing loss, they miss different frequencies (which means missing different sounds because each phoneme/letter falls under a frequency), and therefore their production of speech is altered.  They struggle to create sounds they can’t hear, or can only hear occasionally or fuzzily.  They miss incidental language, which is the language that surrounds us that hearing people internalize automatically.  Instead of having this automatic language stored, they miss it and develop gaps in vocabulary, in grammar.

Our professor told us about an 11-year-old boy she had to teach the word “fart” to.  He would say “excuse me, I passed gas,” which she said she appreciated for its politeness. However, as she told it, he was on a baseball team and there was no way she was going to let him go into the dugout and say “I passed gas” to a bunch of 11-year-old boys.

**

I did a three week externship at a school for the deaf in Seattle.  Like many oral-auditory schools, most of the classes had a couple of hearing peers.  While I was there, NBC Nightly came to interview the students about meeting Derrick Coleman, a member of the Seahawks, and the only deaf NFL player.  The students were all brought into a classroom and played with toys at various stations as the camera crew scanned the room and picked out children to interview.

The reporter, brown hair, big encouraging eyes, sat down and talked to several of the children.  The first few were shy and mumbly, and answered questions about Derrick Coleman’s profession with answers like “baseball?”  Then the reporter came to a table with kids playing around it.  He started talking to a little boy with mussed brown hair and an eager smile. The boy answered his questions articulately and clearly, so the reporter kept talking to him, asking him his thoughts.  And then:

“How do you feel, knowing that Derrick Coleman is a professional football player?”

The boy shrugged. “Good, I guess.”

“Does it make you feel like you can do anything?”

“Sure.”

The boy, of course, was one of the typical hearing students.  Derrick Coleman’s success as a deaf football player had no personal relevance on his career goals.

When I tell this story, I laugh at the humor of the situation. But I also think of how eager the reporter was to talk to the boy after less articulate interviews.  How, even as he created a piece about deaf children, he unknowingly missed most of the deaf children in the room and talked to a hearing child.

That’s the thing about language.  It often means inclusion or exclusion.  I know which I want for my students — I just don’t always know how to get there.

In the meantime, attempting to sign language is a good reminder to myself of how hard it can be to learn a language for the first time.

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