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November 27, 2004

Signing on tap at MJC library

From: Modesto Bee - Modesto,CA,USA - Nov 27, 2004

Staff members studying key phrases to help deaf


Employees at the Modesto Junior College Library speak Spanish, Vietnamese, and one even speaks a little French.

Now, two-thirds of the library staff, or 10 people, are learning American Sign Language.

They plan to meet weekly for 45 minutes to learn some key phrases in sign language from Enza McCormick, one of three interpreters for the deaf at MJC.

In last week's first session, employees learned to sign "I sign slow, little bit," and "Where student center basement?"

They also began learning the alphabet and numbers, which will come in handy when referring to call numbers on books, for example.

It's a library, so of course they'll learn to sign words like "quiet." They'll learn phrases that could come in handy in a fire drill or real emergency, too, such as "get out."

"At least we can show them that we are making an effort to speak to them," said Dennis Tucker, director of learning resources.

Doris Carper, chairwoman of a library staff development committee, proposed the idea as a way to help students who are deaf get better help at the library.

Each semester at MJC there are 15 to 20 deaf students on campus, said Barbara J. Wells, who teaches American Sign Language at MJC.

"We do have a lot of students that sign," said Charlene Olivera, the library's computer lab supervisor.

When staff need to communicate with a deaf person, generally they use paper, Olivera said. Or they ask Carper to help, she said.

Carper knows a little sign language. She has a disorder, spasmodic dysphonia, that causes her to lose her voice for up to a week at a time. The disorder prompted her to take a sign language course, and her interest in sign language grew recently because her 15-month-old grandson is only partially hearing.

Besides learning to sign, library staffers also are planning a two-hour workshop for deaf students. Through a signing instructor, the students will get a basic introduction to the library, including guidelines on how to conduct research, Tucker said.

McCormick said she suspects word will get around fast in the deaf community that staff in the library want to learn sign language. In her 10 years at the college, she said, "This is the first time anyone has shown an interest in learning the language."

One deaf student, 19-year-old Priya Roberts of Modesto, lit up when she learned that library employees are learning to sign.

"I like to meet people who can sign," she said, through interpreter McCormick. "I can teach them some things, and I know that it would help me, too, if they know how to sign."

A freshman, Roberts said it's easy to communicate by writing notes, but she also said notes can be misunderstood. That's because sometimes it's difficult to understand the meaning of each word, she said.

English a second language

American Sign Language may be made up of English words, but in fact English and ASL are two different languages, McCormick said.

For deaf people born to hearing parents — or 90 percent of people who are deaf — English is their second language, McCormick said. Roberts was adopted by hearing parents as a baby from India.

"They approach school as a student learning a second language does," Wells said. "They have tremendous difficulty reading and writing the English language."

In the United States, the average deaf person reads at about a third-grade level because English is their second language, Wells said.

Roberts, who is studying computers, said English is her least favorite subject.

Roberts' five siblings and her parents all learned sign language, and she spent the past two years studying at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, where teachers sign to the class. So she's not used to having an interpreter in the classroom.

"I was feeling a little bit awkward at first," she said of life at MJC. "But I'm feeling a little bit better."

Bee staff writer Melanie Turner can be reached at 578-2366 or

Copyright © 2004 The Modesto Bee.