Sign Language 2.0

There were quite a few reasons Grace was determined to go to W___ High School. She was excited about the opportunity to play on the lacrosse team. She was really excited about enrolling in the biomedical pathway of the Science, Math and Technology Academy there. She wanted to be at the school where most of her friends were going, and to be able to take a familiar bus route to a familiar part of town. She was also looking forward to shifting foreign languages from Spanish to American Sign Language (ASL), which we had heard was offered as a language option at W___. At the end of last year, Grace spoke with her 8th grade counselor about switching out of Spanish and into ASL. At a conference toward the end of 8th grade, her English teacher shared with me that Grace had told her she wanted to start taking ASL so she could “learn the language of her people.”

Sign language is not a new language for Grace – she’s been exposed to some form of signing since she was five months old. Our time at the Parent Infant Program at Gallaudet had given me the opportunity to learn some ASL, both through formal classroom training, and in the PIP sessions, where the majority of the other parents were signing Deaf individuals. Grace’s first language was sign language, because until her first cochlear implant was activated when she was a year old, it was the only means I had to communicate with her.

Once Grace’s CI was activated, we started focusing on spoken language development. I never eliminated signing altogether, but as Grace’s grasp of spoken English (and Spanish, too, thanks to our beloved Ana Maria) increased, sign language quickly became a back-up. For a while, we continued to sign to emphasize certain spoken words, like “Now” or Eat” or “Daddy”, we signed at bath time and bedtime, and in the mornings before she turned her processors on for the day. But as the years went by, and I lost the opportunity and need to use sign language, I forgot many vocabulary words and much of the lessons in syntax I’d been taught. Frequently, we would make up signs as we needed them, and then forget which ones were “real” ASL signs and which were our own family ones. So, by the time Grace was ready for high school, the sign language we used had morphed into K* Family Pigeon Sign Language (KFPSL?), rather than true ASL at all.

In addition, while Grace understood my faltering, relatively slow, limited-in-vocabulary signing, she almost never signed herself – it was more natural for her to speak aloud, even when her processors were off, than to sign. Her receptive signing was therefore much stronger than her expressive signing. (Mine is the opposite – I can finger spell but struggle mightily to comprehend when others finger spell to me. I don’t get any practice with receptive finger spelling – Grace almost never finger spells with me).

This was the signing status quo when Grace walked into her first ASL class at W_. It had taken a little finagling to get her into the class – when we received her preliminary schedule mid-summer, she was still registered for Spanish. I emailed the 9th Grade counselors and asked if she could be switched, and eventually got a response that ASL was for kids who were deaf or hard of hearing. Ha! So, funny thing... I wrote back. They switched Grace in.

For the first few weeks it went okay. It turned out that actually, most of the kids in the class were hearing – Grace surmised that many of them were special education students. The teacher was a Deaf man, whose curriculum addressed not only language, but also cultural context. In addition to the teacher, Dr. S, an ASL interpreter was also in the classroom, supporting two-way conversation and Q&A between Dr. S and the students. From what I could tell of the materials sent home early in the first semester, most of the vocabulary Dr. S planned to cover was already part of Grace’s lexicon. But I hoped she’d pick up a lot of incidental signing just spending three days a week watching him sign with the class. Soon, though, Grace began sharing with me that she didn’t like the teacher much, saying she didn't like how he would point to himself and sign “I’m deaf,” then point to a girl in the class with hearing aids and sign “She’s hard of hearing”, and then point to Grace and sign “She’s deaf!” My take was that she would have preferred not being classified in the same group as he was – not because she is uncomfortable with her deafness – but because she doesn’t see herself being like him in any way.

She was also frustrated that when quizzing the class, he would sign very slowly with other students, and at fluency pace with her. She didn’t get great grades on her first couple of quizzes. But I was glad she was in the class. I thought it was good for her to have to sort out her feelings about cultural Deafness and ASL. I figured this was likely going to be something she'd have to think about when communicating with other Deaf individuals in the future. I’d met the teacher at back-to-school night, and when I introduced myself, he signed “Oh yes, Grace, sweet kid.” I was feeling okay with the situation.

And then, about a week or two into October, Grace informed me that Dr. S hadn’t been at school nearly two weeks. The head of the special ed. program had been subbing instead. Eventually we got a relatively uninformative email from one of the assistant principals saying they were looking for a temporary replacement until Dr. S returned. Another month went by. Then, another email – just one more – asking us for our patience and assuring us they were still looking for a replacement. By now it was clear Dr. S wasn’t coming back. In the meantime, the sub had stepped in and was piecing together his own curriculum, which he had the ever-rotating interpreters implementing for him, since he doesn’t sign himself.

This was not what we’d signed up for – not at all the formal education in sign language we’d hoped Grace would get. The interpreters themselves pointed out that they were not formally qualified to “teach” – one even suggested the students’ parents sue the school.

But as time went by, Grace began to report that she was actually learning more from some of these interpreters than she was from Dr. S. Although I’d resigned myself to shifting her back into Spanish next year, I had a glimmer of hope that at least this year might not end up being a complete waste of language-learning time. It wasn’t optimal, or even good, but maybe it hasn’t been terrible either, I thought.

And then, last week, the K* family went to a Regina Spektor concert. Each and every one of the four of us adores her, and have been looking forward to this concert for months. Grace and I were sitting next to each other. It’s noisy at concerts. Whenever I wanted to say something to her, I’d sign – this is exactly the kind of environment where we always found signing – even if it was only KFPSL – extremely useful. And guess what happened? Every time I would try to find a way to sign about how amazingly Regina performed that last song, or say I hoped she’d play something from her first album, I’d do it in KFPSL. But when Grace signed back to me – something she rarely used to do before – it hit me: She was signing to me, in ASL, and I could hardly follow any of what she was signing. When I looked at her with confused eyebrows and she saw I hadn’t understood, she tried shifting to finger spelling. I couldn’t follow that either. I just watched her, with a rising sense of wonder, as I noticed not just the dexterity of her hands, but the accompanying facial expressions that are so much a part of true ASL.

Somehow, in that pieced-together ASL class, Grace has been becoming proficient. I never thought not understanding what my kid was trying to tell me could make me so happy.