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Worlds Apart? The Deaf and Hard-of-hearing Learn Foreign Languages

by Tom Thompson

I've traveled all over the world to learn various languages, with some of those wonderful experiences detailed here in Omniglot. Thus, the surprising joy of a chance encounter with both foreign language faculty and students at Gallaudet University, only two subway stops from my home in Washington, D.C.! Gallaudet University is the only four year liberal arts college in the world primarily serving deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

Just the sheer volume of communication that goes on at Gallaudet was a revelation to me. Communication is open and expedited by pagers, instant messaging, and on-line video conversation. There are videophone booths throughout the campus. Everyone signs in American Sign Language (ASL), which has its own unique nature as a non-print, non-written visual and embodied language. Classrooms at Gallaudet emphasize visual media, both textual and pictorial. And classrooms have lots of overhead projectors, Internet links with chalkboards for written work and variable lighting for good vision. Classrooms have circular seating so that everybody can see each other. Communication is both manual, for signs and signed language, and oral, for the development of oral speech and lip-reading. As a guest speaker, my lecture was translated into ASL, and there was also simultaneous captioned video!

The school has a long history of foreign language teaching. There are classes in Spanish, French, German, Latin and Italian. The emphasis is on reading and writing. And a student with voicing capability who wishes to work on speaking the target language can easily do so. The school provides all levels of undergraduate language instruction, as well as courses in literature in translation and advanced special topics.

One of the faculty has noted that that it can be a challenge at times to explain certain aspects of language that are specifically related to speech. Diacritical marks or irregular spellings that have a vocalic rationale are illustrative. But my impression is that these things are simply linguistic “speed bumps,” and little else; as they are crushed by motivated students with high standards.

One of the fascinating teaching innovations at Gallaudet has been incorporating foreign sign language into the instruction of written foreign language for deaf students. The Spanish-language program has experimented with combining written Spanish and the Costa Rican sign language known as LESCO (Lengua de Señas de Costa Rica). LESCO shares about 70% of its vocabulary with ASL. The insight is that certain signs might be accompanied by specific oral movements that partially match the articulation of the corresponding word in the spoken language. Shared signs in ASL and LESCO might therefore occasionally be accompanied by different mouth movements, matching English and Spanish, respectively.

Gallaudet's students reap the same benefits from foreign language study that other students do. The improvement of English, the expansion of vocabulary through shared etymology, and the benefit of studying comparative syntax are all abundantly in evidence.

It's probably unrealistic to believe that I'll ever become fluent in ASL, but a few basic signs, intuitive and simple enough to learn, went a long way to ease my nervousness as a guest speaker. I've yet to meet a more energetic and focused group of students, who are still emailing me long after my introductory lecture on the mechanics of written Chinese. I mentioned that being able to read Chinese characters could be satisfying, but that it's also rewarding to be able to write them. What was scheduled for a half hour only ended several hours later!

In turn, I've become fascinated with ASL. It syntactically contains properties like other languages, such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives. There's a grammar that has to be followed. Frustrated with the pace my ASL efforts, I've reached out to some of the Gallaudet students for help; in that process they've patiently convinced me that ASL grammar shares more with Chinese than it does with English.

Tom Thompson writes frequently on foreign language topics.

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