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December 26, 2005

Signing: Not only language, but also culture

From: Bristol Press, United States - Dec 26, 2005

By JOANNA MECHLINSKI , The Bristol Press

BURLINGTON -- When Jennifer Labbe’s sister was in first grade, the class included a deaf student. All the children learned fingerspelling and the basics of American Sign Language, which migrated home to Labbe herself.

Years later, the Burlington resident was a senior at Lewis S. Mills High School, wondering what to do about language requirements. After reaching Spanish 4, she decided she didn’t want to continue. She discovered Mills offered introductory and intermediate courses in American Sign Language and decided to pursue the interest she’d had since childhood.

Halfway through ASL I, Labbe is enthusiastic about her choice.

"I love this class," she said.

The week preceding the holiday break, Labbe’s class was finishing up reports on deaf culture. She had read "A Loss for Words," by Lou Ann Walker, sharing with her classmates Walker’s account of growing up hearing with deaf parents. Labbe recounted Walker’s numerous childhood experiences, serving as interpreter for her parents in the hearing world, and her constant worries about what hearing people would think of her family.

Those are among the types of things teacher Robin Mengual wants her students to consider. Just as students learning French or Spanish must learn about the culture, not merely the language, to become truly immersed in their study, her students must also be exposed to deaf culture.

In ASL II, students had a more challenging project. They had to choose a song, learn the signs that corresponded to the lyrics and demonstrate for their class.

Shannon Fey, a junior from Harwinton, selected "The Blower’s Daughter," by Damien Rice. She kept in mind Mengual’s cue to look up at her audience and try to convey the emotions of the lyrics -- in ASL, words can take on different meanings, depending on their speaker’s inflections.

Burlington senior Kristin Bodnar signed the lyrics to "Learn to be Lonely" from the "Phantom of the Opera" soundtrack. While her selection was also a slow song, she had to demonstrate knowledge of signs beyond the basics, in lyrics such as "Child of the wilderness/Born into emptiness/Learn to find your way in darkness."

Many people, Mengual said, have the mistaken idea that a person can simply look at signs and understand them without study.

"It has grammar and rules," she said. "It’s another language."

Mengual, who received a bachelor’s degree in special education and elementary education at Central Connecticut State University, spent four years working with learning-disabled students in Bristol. During that time, she decided she wanted to specialize in deaf education. She returned to school, earning a master’s degree in deaf education from Boston University.

Mengual then spent three years working at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford. In 1997, she landed a position at Mills, piloting a sign language program under the category of special education. The goal of administrators at the time was to offer a language alternative to learning-disabled students who were having difficulties meeting the requirements.

Throughout the years, interest in ASL spread to other students. Some have deaf relatives or friends with whom they wanted to communicate better. Others, like Labbe, are simply interested in studying the language.

Mengual uses her ASD experience to enhance the curriculum, as well as her contacts to expand her students’ lessons beyond the textbook, such as with the pen-pal program. At the beginning of the school year, Mengual’s students were each matched with ASD high school students who are studying written English. (ASL, the preferred language of the deaf, does not have a written form. Its grammar and usage are different from that of spoken English.)

The classes began by sending videotapes and letters to one another. In October, they met for the first time; and in December, the two groups attended an interpreted performance of "A Christmas Carol" at Hartford Stage Company.

Nervousness abounds before the initial meeting, Mengual said. Her students always worry about what the deaf teens will be like, whether they’ll be able to communicate and just if they’ll get along.

"When they come back, it’s always the same thing -- ‘They’re just like us,’" Mengual said.

Each year, Mengual added, several of her students end up attending the ASD prom. Others develop close relationships with their pen pals well beyond class requirements, e-mailing often and even sleeping over at one another’s houses.

In January, the Mills students will visit ASD. ASL I students will visit the "lower school," where they will meet with younger pupils, while ASL II students will follow their pen pals through a regular school day and interview an adult at the school.

In March, Mengual would like to invite the ASD students to visit Mills, though the details are still fuzzy.

The ASL skills the students are learning at Mills will serve as a start toward numerous careers that are in demand, such as interpreting. Many deaf students are being mainstreamed in regular classrooms, requiring interpreters, and places like hospitals and courts will always need interpretation.

"There is a call for that, especially specialized interpretation," Mengual said, referring to interpreters who are also familiar with medical or legal terminology.

Or, as Bodnar plans to do, they can use the language skills to pursue a degree in special education.

Regardless of what her students continue to do, Mengual said the past eight years have been a rewarding experience.

"I’ve loved it," she said. "The kids are excited to be there."

©The Bristol Press 2005