Sign Language Values

By Joyce Dowling
July 18, 2004
(with contributions from Adrien Seaton & Ginny Bridges)

The service today is about Sign Language.
Sign Language can be beautiful, unique and graceful. When I sign songs, I call them “my dancing hands.”

It’s more than a language for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. When you use Sign Language in addition to your spoken language (along with your body language and facial expression), your communication is wholistic.

Being a bilingual, trilingual or more improves your language skills and understanding of communication. You can communicate with your mouth full and not be rude. You can communicate underwater, for instance if you’re a scuba diver.

It can help people like fire fighters and police officers develop better gestural communication.

You can talk through windows and in the long distances and still be understood as long as you’re seen well.

You can be sure that nobody can overhear through doors, like a secret.

You can communicate in a place where you’re supposed to be quiet, like a concert or church service.

You can communicate where it’s hard to hear, such as in noisy parties – when there’s a lot of people talking or the music is loud.

It is beneficial to people, besides the deaf and hard-of hearing, such as people with autism or speaking problems. We all have speaking problems sometimes – like laryngitis.

You can even communicate with animals, such as apes.

And you can communicate with babies before they can speak – babies can learn signing easier than speech.

I first taught children sign language in our religious education program many years ago. The first time I taught them Spirit of Life was maybe about 10 years ago and it became a ritual soon thereafter.

I actually worked with a group of young children teaching them how to shape the signs with their hands and making the proper movements. Then I created a print sheet, which you should be able to find out on the literature rack – if not, I can copy more up. Later Dixon helped me create a video for the kids so they could learn and practice at home. I think Dixon still has the master and can make more if needed.

That’s the basic history. Now let’s hear a parent’s perspective of the children’s signing – Adrien Seaton.:

Alena started signing the Spririt of Life here in Sept. two years ago. Before that she showed absolutely no interest in doing anything in front of an audience. She was very reticent about that and shy. Joyce gave us a tape and we brought it home. Alena and I sat down and watched it and practiced. Not only did it show how to do it, but what the movements all meant, which was very interesting. I still didn’t think that Alena would actually get up do it, but starting that Sept., she just turned around and said, “I’m going to get up with the other kids and do it.” We were very excited about that.

I think starting to do the signing of the Spirit of Life was the beginning of Alena’s blossoming here at the church. Her confidence and poise really increased and she felt comfortable getting up in front of people and doing things. Also, she knows that it’s something that would help the hearing impaired and that if someone were hearing impaired here they’d understand what we were singing and she likes that. She likes the movements – she thinks it has a dance-like quality and she enjoys getting up there and doing this dance-like thing with the other kids.

She also has a real feeling of contribution. When she comes into the sanctuary, she feels like she’s contributing to the service every week. And she gets a lot of compliments from people, which of course really helps her and makes her feel good about what she’s doing. She particularly likes it when the congregation signs back. I asked her about that and she said that she feels like she’s giving people a gift and people are giving her a gift back.

Now that I’ve shared with you the thoughts of one person who is deaf (poem here) and many reasons why someone who is not deaf or hard of hearing might want to learn sign language, I’d like to tell you a bit about why I learned sign language, briefly what I know about sign languages, how learning sign language connects with our values, and then after you’ve had a chance to share, teach you to sign a song.

Race, my husband, studied at Rochester Institute of Technology for 4 yrs., we lived there on campus. The National Technical Institute for the Deaf is there and there a lot of signing deaf and hard-of-hearing adults. I learned that they had free classes in sign language and I thought it would be great to learn to communicate with the deaf there. Since Maia, our first child was born there in the second year of Race’s studies and Maia was adamant about not being left with a sitter when she was only 3 mos. old, I wasn’t able to study continuously while I was there. I did attend classes from Beginning to Advanced Level, though, and finally get a certificate for my studies.

I seldom was able to use my sign language skills, though. Most deaf adults didn’t have much patience for slow signers who were just learning, and they could read lips and speak. I did use my sign language later, though, as a home child care provider. One of my clients found out that her nephew was deaf and I encouraged her to bring the boy into my care so he could learn more sign language. When he came into my care at age 3, he could only sign a few words and wasn’t interested in books. Deaf children seldom read on grade level and this is a concern of mine. So we made a game out of reading and by age 6 he had a tremendous vocabulary and could read at first grade level. Getting off to a good start is really important.

When I stopped doing child care, I went to work teaching in the public school where the deaf preschool and elementary children go in this county. Later, I worked part time as a substitute teacher, which I still do and have done now for about 14 yrs.

When I first learned Sign Language, I learned what they called then – Pidgin Sign (or PSE) – signing in English order but using signs as in American Sign Language. American Sign Language (known as ASL) is the language used by most deaf adults and it is visual and has a very different grammar than English. I really never learned ASL. I still use what they now call Contact Sign Language. Preschool and kindergarten children often learn SEE – Signing Exact English, where there’s a sign, often starting with the initial for the word, for every spoken word.

Knowing Sign Language has taught me a lot about the English language, too. We often don’t think about the meanings of the words we use – we just use the words the way we’ve heard them being used. But when I’m trying to interpret something & can’t find a sign, I have to really consider the meaning of the word in much more depth than I have before. Since many words have several definitions, it depends on which meaning is used as to how it would be signed. Homonyms in English are different in sign language – the signs often give a visual definition.

Though I am in no way an advanced signer, primarily because I don’t have deaf friends or colleagues and seldom see or use sign language on a regular basis, I have learned a lot since I learned to sign. It has taught me more about basic communication. To pay more attention to the body and face, which do communicate to us whether or not we do it intentionally. I still often look back at an encounter and think of how I could have done it better since my unintentional glare probably communicated the wrong thing. Eye contact alone communicates many things and when you weren’t brought up to do it – when your parents talked to you while reading the paper or washing dishes & didn’t look you in the eyes, it’s hard to learn a better way of communicating later. But I’m not too old to learn; I hope I never stop learning. And that I also don’t stop sharing what I learn with others…which connects us to our Unitarian Universalist principles.

As you can see on the back of your order of service,

* The inherent dignity and worth of every person;

You all have worth and so do people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing

* Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;

It’s hard to treat a person justly if you’re having trouble communicating. Sign language gives you another way to communicate.

* Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;

Again, you need to communicate to do this and we can always improve how we communicate, especially with new people.

* A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

Learning is a lifelong process and the more we learn about ourselves and others, the closer we get to “truth.”

* The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;

Another example of a need to communicate well.

* The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;

Wouldn’t the world be a better place to live if we could all communicate better with each other? and

* Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

My granddaughter, Rachael, was born deaf. She was identified shortly after birth because of the mandatory newborn hearing screens. I am a speech-language pathologist, and I felt it was essential for our family to begin to learn sign language so that we could help Rachael develop language. American Sign Language, called ASL, is a separate and complete language with its own grammatical structure. The vocabulary and grammar are very different from English and from Signed English. The word order within sentences is different and much of the grammar is shown by facial expression. For example, whether the forehead is raised with open eyes or whether the brows are squeezed together with a slightly tilted head is the difference between a “yes/no” question or a “wh” question. Shifting your body slightly helps to show different speakers or topics. Translating from one language to the other is not easy. One must always keep in mind the concepts of the message and not just the words or the meaning will be lost.

Teachers from the Maryland School for the Deaf began to work with my granddaughter and her family when Rachael was just a few months old, and she attended classes at the Columbia campus as a baby, toddler, and young preschooler. I have taken several courses, though I am still a relative beginner. My daughter and son-in-law also continue to take signing classes. Rachael had learned several hundred signs by the time she was 18 months old. She was combining signs to make comments and ask questions. American Sign Language is her first language and she is very comfortable using the signs she knows. Rachael received a cochlear implant when she was 18 months old. In the last two years, she has continued to learn ASL and has also been learning English with its vocabulary and sentence structure. We hope that she becomes truly bilingual, and that she can learn to be at home in both the Deaf and the hearing communities.

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