My cousin Marco had a presentation at UC San Diego, where he received his graduate degree in American Sign Language, English Bilingual Education. The presentations were in American Sign Language (ASL) while several interpreters voiced what was being signed. While I listened with great interest, I saw the many similarities between the bilingual education program in the context of the deaf community and bilingual education programs in urban and Latino communities.
I was particularly interested in learning more about Anthony J. O’Donnell’s work. He said that hands, in the context of signing, can alter the meaning of words. The following day I got to spend some time with AJ over a cup of coffee. I had never been in the company of a deaf person and was unsure how we were going to communicate. He brought along a tablet and began to communicate with me through writing. And while AJ is adept at writing quickly and effortlessly on the tablet, it took me a while to get through a thought. But he was patient as I spelled out words, finger by finger.
I learned that just as spoken words have slight and varied nuances depending on pitch, tone, pronunciation and context, so do signed words. The rhythm and flow of hands, their movement, rate of signing as well as patterns used, add and change the nuances of their meaning. I thought of how words have shades of meaning and how these subtleties are sometimes challenging for English Language Learners (ELL’s) to grasp.
My cousin, who is a hearing individual, has been learning ASL. He loves languages, learning about their cultures and its people. He knows English, Spanish, Arabic and now ASL. He works in an urban school for the deaf with students who are predominantly Latino. During his presentation, Mark raised some valid points that I had never considered. Just like ELL’s are balancing English and a home native language, his students have several languages and forms of communications to contend with. Firstly, his high school students are born deaf, to hearing families. They come from immigrant families where Spanish is the home language.
Another presenter mentioned the need for deaf children to read and learn about deaf role models so that they see themselves in literature, history, music, and the community at large. This again highlights the need for teachers, parents and librarians to include multicultural literature in schools so that underrepresented children or children of color recognize the inherent beauty of their culture and language.
I shared with AJ that the presentations made me realize how similar the struggles and needs of the deaf community are between ELL’s and those that are considered “others” in American mainstream culture. AJ openly shared that he knows what it feels like to not be seen, not heard and not validated. And while I do not share the struggles he has faced as a deaf individual, I can empathize because as a Latina daughter of immigrant parents, my experience has been one of straddling two worlds. I have my mainstream English world and the culture of my home where English and Spanish are mixed together, Spanglish. My childhood friends and I have mastered the ability to codeswitch, depending on who we are speaking to. When in a professional setting, we speak with each other using academic English. When we are together in a relaxed setting, we speak to each other in Spanglish, use urban words and phrases and other forms of colloquialisms. However, mainstream culture says that only academic English is considered correct and that the culture my family is from is somehow less than. But when we consider the main function of language, it is to communicate, to express oneself, to connect.
I feel fortunate for having been introduced to the deaf community, or as AJ prefers, the signing community. It has its own language system (ASL): a language system that is not made up of simple hand gestures, but a system with intricate structures that allows for the deaf community to communicate with each other just as deeply and profoundly as any other language in the hearing community.
AJ- thank you for teaching me something new, for allowing me to ask you a million questions and mostly for your gracious manner and intellect. You are a brilliant man.
Marco- felicidades primito. Your curiosity and passion never ceases to amaze me.
Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varies. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.