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Wednesday, 27 November 2013 16:17

Silence speaks volumes for sign students

Written by  Ian Gronau
American Sign Language classes meet on Monday nights in the basement of Kastner Hall on the Wisconsin School for the Deaf campus in Delavan. At last Monday’s class, teacher Alyson Urdahl made sure to cover the signs for putting the turkey in the oven. American Sign Language classes meet on Monday nights in the basement of Kastner Hall on the Wisconsin School for the Deaf campus in Delavan. At last Monday’s class, teacher Alyson Urdahl made sure to cover the signs for putting the turkey in the oven. Ian Gronau

 WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY — You may walk right past the room in Kastner Hall on the Wisconsin School for the Deaf campus without even noticing that there are 30 to 60 people learning a new language inside. This is because, for the most part, the instruction is completely silent.

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Every Monday evening the basement room fills with interested community members and family members of deaf and hard of hearing people to take an American Sign Language class. Wisconsin School for the Deaf teachers Alyson Urdahl, Donna Karpas and David Copeland are all deaf themselves, and they instruct the class by using the exact skill they are trying to teach.

WSD has been offering ASL classes to the public since the mid-1990s, and with the exception of a $40 instructional book, the class is free. The weekly courses that run from early October through late April are set up by levels: beginners, children’s and level two.

 For people such as Jolene and Wendy Esch, these free classes make a huge difference. Sixteen months ago Jolene’s son was born profoundly deaf, which is the highest classification of hearing loss, and her mother, Wendy, has been accompanying her in the most recent rotation of classes. Although picking up the new skill is proving to be a challenge, they hope to gain fluency in the language soon.

“Some people are here just trying to pick up a second language, which is great, but we have a reason,” Wendy Esch said. “I want to be able to talk to my grandson.”

Wendy Esch said she’d probably pick up sign language faster if she had more time to practice. The most difficult part, for her, is incorporating the important facial expressions that are linked to certain signs, she said.

Both women are able to pick up a bit of practice with their husbands as they bring home what they’ve learned at each class.

“For me, the most difficult part is remembering all the signs and how to put them all together; there are just so many of them,” Jolene Esch said.

While each person in the class may have their own reason to attend, they all stand to gain by being instructed by someone who is actually deaf. Because according to Copeland, even hearing people who are well-versed in ASL sign with an accent that is distinguishable to someone who is deaf.

“New signers each have their own style of signing, which is noticeable to a native user of ASL,” Copeland said. “It pertains to the distinct movements of the signer’s hands, lips and body when the person is signing.

“We can tell if someone is hearing or deaf. One exception to that is that if a hearing person was raised by deaf parents, then there is a very good chance that the hearing person signs like a deaf person, and that could easily fool other deaf people.”

As with learning any language, immersion with its speakers is an important component to success, and learning with Copeland, Urdahl and Karpas also has the advantage of linking the outside community to the community that exists within WSD.

WSD, operating under the direction of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, has served Wisconsin’s deaf and hard of hearing children and their families since 1852. With an average enrollment of 110 students ages 3 through 21, the school is an epicenter of Wisconsin deaf culture.

Rubbing elbows with native speakers also has the advantage of being able to pick up the interesting subtleties of communicating with ASL. 

“We, the deaf, have our own idioms,” Copeland said. “One example is signing ‘train-zoom-sorry,’ which means, ‘You missed your chance and I am not repeating what I said.’

“Another is fish-you-swallow, which means, ‘you fell for it.’ One subtlety with acknowledging what another person is saying is the twitching of the nose of the receiver when the other person is talking about something that the receiver knows and acknowledges.”

There are many idiomatic expressions to absorb in order to gain a true fluency with ASL, and as with any language, there is a lot that MP3s, cassettes, videos and books can’t teach you. For added immersion, WSD offers opportunities for students to interact with other deaf people in the area.

The Deaf Picnic in Darien on the third Saturday in August is a chance to interact. New signers also can visit the Southern Lakes Association of the Deaf Clubhouse in Delavan where they have scheduled events that anyone can attend to learn and improve their ASL skills. The public also is invited to attend plays at WSD in the winter and spring as well as sporting events, where ASL students can  interact with those who are deaf.

For anyone interested, Copeland said that you can pick up a lot in six months depending on how motivated you are, and even more in a year.

Maria Rivera, an administrative assistant at WSD, recalled  her journey into ASL.

“I started my first ever sign language class in 2004. I went to UW-Milwaukee and I was just taking one class every semester, sometimes every other,” Rivera said. “I would say within three or four years I was at the point where I could start having really full conversations with somebody, although still it wasn’t as smooth as it might be now that I have been using the language for almost 10 years.

“There really is a culture attached to the language, though.”

There are many advantages to learning ASL other than just acquiring a new language. The act of learning the language can help foster relationships and knit communities together.

Copeland summed it up like this: “Language is power. It makes or breaks communication between hearing and deaf people in the area.

“When the hearing and the deaf learn to communicate with one another, it builds a more unified community where people respect each other regardless of language differences.”

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