My 5th grade students have started a story about a young girl who meets another girl who is deaf. The story revolves around their budding friendship and how the hearing girl learns to communicate with her new friend. As a prelude to this story, I taught my students about what sign language is and how people use it to communicate.
I was also a student at this point, learning the differences between American Sign Language (ASL) and Korean Sign Language (KSL). I learned the alphabet and some basic signs when I was in middle school, as I had a friend who was deaf. A few YouTube videos later, I was brushing up on my introductory conversation skills.
The Korean sign language alphabet consists of 15 consonants and 20 vowels/vowel combinations, for a total of 35 letters. Four of the basic vowels are formed with the same index finger, palm facing inward/outward, pointing up or down. It's interesting to note that just like ASL, KSL alphabet closely resembles the letter it is portraying.
I went over the KSL with my students first before segueing into ASL. Interestingly, they found ASL to be much easier for them to form with their hands, and pressed me for more signs in English. If I remembered the sign, I would demonstrate for them, and they would eagerly copy and practice. For those I didn't remember, we fired up the appropriate YouTube video and learned together. I spelled all of their names for them one by one, and for some more than once.
They soaked up this new information like sponges, and took to it more than our usual English conversation practice. By the end of class, they had learned how to hold a basic conversation and were practicing speaking and signing to each other in pairs--without my prompting. When my students see me in class or the hall, they ask me a question about a sign, or will show me how their practice is paying off. They've even gone so far to show their friends outside of class what they learned.
For a class that usually frustrates me with their general disdain for English, this appreciation for something so different to them makes me happy. But if only all classes were so easy to keep interested!
Watching them use their new language skills to communicate has me thinking about how these children will approach any language barriers they might encounter whilst growing up. Granted I know some of my students will never think twice about English once we finish our time together, but I know some will go on to continue studying and learning more. How will those students navigate the tricky waters of communication (and miscommunication)? Will they take what they have learned and use it to their greatest advantage? Will they be able to convey clearly what they want or what they're thinking? Will they limit themselves in possibility or seek to find opportunity outside of everyone else?