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October 14, 2002

ASL well worth studying

From: Carlisle Sentinel, PA
Oct. 14, 2002

By Carol Talley October 13, 2002

One day Mary Jane comes home from school making signs with her fingers. She is excited because the teacher is doing a project with the class on American Sign Language (ASL).

My children did it. Now, my grandchildren are doing it. My oldest daughter became so enraptured with sign language that she carried the interest forward into adulthood.

Most, however, quickly forget about signing as they move on to other things. Or at least they did. This has changed in recent years with people beginning to take adult evening courses to learn sign language.

Now the Pennsylvania House has passed state Rep. Jerry Nailor's bill to allow students to receive foreign language credit for completing a high-school level ASL course. The legislation also gives school districts the option of offering the language.

Foreign language? Don't scoff. Foreign doesn't have to refer to the language of another country. Plenty of people here speak Spanish after all. Foreign also can be something outside your knowledge.

Nailor became interested after learning ASL is the third most popular language in the country. English is first with Spanish in second place.

But don't think the promotion of ASL was a shoo-in, even with all the deaf and hard of hearing. Some are opposed to it because they believe the deaf should learn lip-reading and how to speak instead of signing.

However, many are for it. Representatives of the ASL Teachers Association stress the importance of expanding the teaching of the language. Parents mainstreaming hearing-impaired children also want to see the language taught more.

Nailor isn't the first to sponsor this legislation in Pennsylvania. Others gave up when they couldn't get it out of committee. But he managed to bring it to the floor with an overwhelming vote of 197-1. That's a ringing endorsement.

Of course, that's only half the battle. He now hopes for support from a fellow Cumberland County official, state Sen. Hal Mowery, R-31, to push the bill in the upper chamber.

And why not? Signing is the language of more than one-half million Americans. It is the unifier of the deaf community culture.

As for the hearing population, it can't hurt to be able to directly communicate with more than 500,000 consumers not being reached on a one-one basis. I can think of a lot of hearing professionals who could be more effective if they could sign. Include police, doctors, nurses, social workers, firefighters and teachers on that list.

Besides, plenty of research is out there on benefits to the hearing. Dr. Marilyn Daniels, associate professor of speech communication at Penn State's Worthington Scranton campus has written a book, "Dancing With Words: Signing for Hearing Children's Literacy."

In one case study, Daniels says a mother taught her whiny 9-month-old basic signs such as please, eat and drink in an attempt to communicate better with him. The professor says the boy responded so the mom added apple, pasta and cookie. At one year old, the boy signed when he wanted to take a bath or go out and play.

By 13 months, he knew more ASL than English Words. Yet, he talked well by two years and four months and was trying to teach his six-week-old sister to sign.

Daniels concludes in her work, "Sign does not hinder language development in any way. In fact, it fosters it. Knowing a second language, such as ASL, also boosts self-esteem of the children and their confidence in learning, as well as their awareness of the deaf culture."

A March story in the Detroit News focused on the use of sign language in the Livonia public schools. The story told how the music teacher taught signs to elementary school children to illustrate songs they sang. It also pointed to Daniels' findings that kindergartners who use ASL in the classroom score higher on vocabulary tests.

The story went on to tell about signing in the Dearborn (Mich.) public schools' special education program for hard of hearing children. A teacher there said, "It makes the deaf students feel like part of the school. And the hearing students are learning that, even though children aren't all the same, they're still capable of normalcy."

The experts also say learning to sign can help a child use the right side of the brain and develop hand and eye coordination.

So while Nailor's bill at first seems alien, the concept is in use. He says more than 30 other states have bills that recognize ESL as a foreign language.

When my youngest granddaughter was less than one year old, I started signing "Grandma loves Megan." I mouthed the words as I signed.

When I just said the words, she didn't react. When I signed and said them, she laughed and hugged me. She responded in the same way every time I did it and later even began to return the gestures.

I didn't understand why till now. She started to understand when I showed her with signs. Only then did we begin to communicate.

Copyright © 2002 The Sentinel, Carlisle, Pa