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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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More Than Meets the Eye: Revealing the Complexities of an Interpreted Education
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The song continues with each successive long vowel sound and ends by singing the verse again with the correct pronunciation of the lyrics. I had no idea how to interpret a song that was almost entirely based on sounds in a way that would be accessible to children who had never heard a spoken language. I remember being horrified, because all I could think to do was repeatedly sign the lyrics in their original form, without the phonetic variations. In spite of my incompetence, the Deaf students laughed and had a good time, and they happily copied my signs as the other children sang along. All of the children and staff were smiling and laughing, while I tried to keep breathing until the torture stopped. The second challenge came when I realized that Roberto, and a few of his classmates, were recent immigrants from Mexico. Like many Deaf children in Mexico, he had not had formal schooling through any form of signed language. According to staff members who had worked with him on occasion, he had no formal language skills. He could not speak or lipread Spanish or English. He could not read or write. He did not use either Mexican or American Sign Language. He could not fingerspell or write his own name independently.

When I was assigned to Roberto’s group, I learned a lot about sign language, and a whole lot more about learning. In retrospect, I recognize that I was completely ineffective in meeting Roberto’s language needs. He was an easygoing kid, and we all had a great time that week. Roberto smiled just as much as the rest of us. From his reaction, an observer might not have realized just how often he was left out. There were two things working in his favor: He and his classmates had developed their own means of communicating; and most of the experiences were highly visual and interactive, so he was able to enjoy the daily activities even if he didn’t fully understand what a particular lesson was about.

At the end of the week, I learned my own great lesson from Roberto. Sometimes the most effective communication does not rely on formal vocabulary. Earlier in the day, we had gone to an old stable that was still in operation. He loved seeing the horses, and we spent a long time there before moving on to the next activity. When we got back to the main classroom at the end of the day, Roberto ran up to an interpreter who was on staff at his regular school and went into an elaborate representation of what he had seen. Roberto became the horse, mimicking head movements and eating hay so vividly that he re-created the scene for those who had not been there. Although he did not use any formal signs, neither from ASL nor from Mexican Sign Language, his message was clear to signers and nonsigners alike.

During my own interpreting education, I had learned that I should assess the students’ language needs, but my understanding was that we would need to decide whether to interpret or transliterate. I did not recall any mention of assessment of language needs beyond that, especially in a school setting. However, when I was out in the field, I found myself wondering how to interpret effectively for these students with such diverse linguistic needs. At the end of the day, all of the groups reconvened in one room to recap the day’s events before they boarded the buses that returned them to their respective schools. During this time, all of the interpreters and students gathered in one large room, so we took turns interpreting for the whole group. From my perspective, one of the interpreters made the information so visually clear that I made a vow to emulate her approach when interpreting with Deaf elementary school students or others who had not yet developed solid language proficiencies.

Several years later, when Roberto was in middle school, I saw him again. This time, he was using ASL to describe an occurrence that had taken place at school. I couldn’t help but be amazed by the development of his sign language skills, even though nobody in his family used sign language. He had acquired at least some level of language competency through exposure to sign language at school. Deaf students like Roberto and other students from cultural and linguistic backgrounds that differ from the dominant language of a society often struggle in academic environments, both with school discourse (Heath, 1983) and with cultural identity and self-esteem (Cummins, 2001). If it is true that even Deaf children who were severely language deprived during the critical years of language acquisition may still be able to acquire communicative competency when exposed to sign language as late as fourth or fifth grade, we cannot overlook the impact interpreters have on the school experiences of mainstreamed Deaf and hard of hearing children.

Because the literature confirmed my own observations and experience that interpreters were not well prepared for interpreting in K–12 settings, I wanted to explore the ways in which K–12 interpreters might facilitate or hinder optimal learning and social opportunities for mainstreamed Deaf and hard of hearing children. Furthermore, I wanted more information than I could find in the literature about the skills and knowledge that educational interpreters need to do their jobs effectively. I set out to learn more about Deaf education and interpreting in K–12 settings so that I could do a better job of preparing students for employment.

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