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August 18, 2004

Instructor teaches graceful language of signing

From: Eastern Arizona Courier, AZ - Aug 18, 2004

By Mary Lines, contributing writer

Semester in, semester out, teachers everywhere complain their students don't listen to lectures, homework assignments and quiz reviews.

This has never been a problem for Eastern Arizona College instructor Elaine Altamirano. No, she hasn't conjured any magic spells or concocted any potions to make students hear what she has to say. In fact, she doesn't expect students to hear her at all.

Altamirano gives language instruction in complete silence. She's even gone so far as to "outlaw" voice in her classroom. And yet, students consistently learn. Most pupils even leave her class more competent than students from similar courses taught elsewhere.

Elaine Altamirano is deaf. She teachers her native language -- American Sign Language (ASL).

Friend and colleague, Loa Beals compares Altamirano's class to a "sink or swim"situation. It's true that students must focus each class period, becoming immediately immersed in the language, but for EAC's ASL department, the technique has been very successful.

"We've had no drownings yet," Loa Beals counters with a smile. As a matter of fact, Beals notes that pupils coming out of Altamirano's class have typically been the best prepared of any students she's seen.

According to EAC's Dr. Keith, who was instrumental in Altamirano's appointment within the department, "I was a little bit afraid at the beginning (about) how a hearing person who does not know sign language would communicate with (a teacher) who did not speak English, but Elaine has proven herself over and over."

Altamirano and Beals are highly competent instuctors. So competent, the classes have been awarded 101 and 102 levels of credibility, becoming transferable to universities. Although the fact that ASL classes now fulfill the college's foreign language requirement has attracted some of the department's students, Altamirano and Beals are quick to point out many other reasons students want to learn the language.

Recent technological breakthroughs allow deaf people many more opportunities to interact with the hearing. For a few decades, inventions like the Telecommunication Device for the Deaf (TDD or TTY), have helped the deaf communicate.

This particular device allows a deaf individual to communicate using text messages over the phone line. This has been helpful but is often slow and unnecessarily tedious. With new video conferencing capabilities, the deaf can not only communicate with other deaf individuals, but with the hearing as well. Of course, increasing technology requires increasing numbers of interpreters.

Altamirano and Beals encourage any attending their classes to investigate this career route. ASL interpretation has become an increasingly profitable profession, with pay reaching as much as $40 an hour for qualified interpreters.

For those less revenue-minded, the career is also emotionally rewarding. Beals translates as Altamirano signs, "If you have an interpreter, you (a deaf person can) go out more -- get around more."

Without interpreters, deaf citizens are confined to a limited acquaintance and are unable to fully participate in their communities.

Altamirano cites the recent Mount Graham fires as an example. Most community members were able to receive constant up-to-date explanations by attending fire lectures and discussions. While Altamirano could have attended, she would have been without an interpreter, missing most of the information.

Deaf individuals with interpreters, on the other hand, can be active in their communities, participating and discussing relevant topics instead of passively sitting at home. "That's why I want more students to take the classes and become interpreters -- not just for Arizona, for everywhere," Beals interprets as Altamirano signs adamantly.

For those not interested in the career, Altamirano also points out the more entertaining aspects of taking ASL classes: "How do you communicate through windows? ASL! . . . Across distances? ASL! . . . Under water? ASL!"

Beals grins and points out that the practical uses of ASL go even further. She uses ASL with her family all the time. From libraries to theaters to church, parents and children can communicate in the silent language in places where voices are inappropriate. Both instructors had their families learning sign language before their children were old enough to talk. Altamirano and her daughter, Yolie (who can hear just fine), spend half of their mother-daughter conversations lip-reading and the other half signing. The 11-year-old, whose first words were in sign, has now decided she would like to be an interpreter herself someday.

Even those students not interested in becoming career interpreters are sure to enjoy the ASL classes, although, according to Loa Beals, ASL is, "as related to English as Japanese is." Many students may notice the hand movements and facial expressions make ASL easier to learn and retain than other foreign languages.

Altamirano and Beals optimize this kinetic learning by involving classes in good-natured competitions. An example of this is their silent scavenger hunts. In this particular game, students bring things from home. The class must learn how to fingerspell or sign the objects' names. The items are then hidden throughout the room, and students are set to "scavenging" for a particular object. The first student to search out and hold up the correct item wins.

Students have further opportunities to increase their skills throughout each semester. Recognizing that ASL is a three-dimensional language and cannot be exclusively learned from a book, EAC gives students opportunities to witness hands-on interpretation.

Building on the broad vocabulary base started by Altamirano, Beals encourages students to analyze and interpret conversations in videos and examples. This can increase students' self confidence while preparing them for real-world situations. It also allows them to see the way one sign flows into another.

ASL is a graceful language, and Beals hopes students become fully aware of the beauty behind signing. Community members may have enjoyed musical or drama productions that embraced signing within their presentations. Others may have noticed native signers flow through silent conversation and have been struck by the beauty of the language.

For these reasons or for others, EAC welcomes any interested in the language to sign up for classes. Class registration is still open and, as Loa Beals quips, "The more the merrier."

Copyright © 2004Eastern Arizona Courier.