August 5, 2014

Enrich Your Learning Environment with Sign Language: Post #10

Image Copyright 2014 Dawn Prochovnic
I've collected so many good memories over the past several weeks! This summer my family had the amazing experience of visiting Spain, and we once again hosted Pablo, (last summer's exchange student), in our home. My richest memories stem from interactions with the people we met during our travels. One of those experiences greatly reinforced my perspective that sign language can bridge communication gaps (especially when communicators speak two different languages).

One evening we gathered in Pablo's grandparent's home to meet his extended family: Grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins. Pablo's youngest cousin, Eva, a preschooler, does not yet speak English (and I speak very limited Spanish). Eva was extremely shy, and seemingly a bit overwhelmed by all of the commotion at "Abuela y Pepito's" house. Her older siblings were headed off to overnight camp early the next morning, and she was being left behind to stay at "Camp Abuela."

We brought gifts for the family, including a couple of my books for the younger children. Eva opened her gift, then eyed me with curiosity from the safety of her hiding spot behind her mother's leg. I attempted to make friends with her and found myself talking in a mixture of English, Spanish, and ASL, saying things like, "Would you like to be friends? Amigas? I could read you this book. Un libro."

She eventually mustered up the courage to come sit near me, and we escaped into the world of story, exploring SEE THE COLORS together. I read some and sang some. I taught her the signs for a few colors and the word "baby," to go along with the repeating phrase, "little one." I used the sign for "where" and encouraged her to search out objects within the illustrations as I spoke enthusiastically in imperfect Español ("¿Dónde está mariposa? ¡Sí, mariposa!"). Before long, she was pointing to objects in the illustrations, signing along with me, and appearing completely at ease. When it was time to go, we waved goodbye and signed "friends" to each other as we said, "adiós."

The next day, I was told that she asked about me at bedtime and again first thing when she woke up the next morning. That following evening, we had another family gathering, (this time at Pablo's mother's house). When Eva arrived, she immediately smiled and signed "friend" to me and gave me this beautiful friendship bracelet.

This experience illustrates one of the reasons I especially love teaching sign language vocabulary to children in bi-lingual/multi-lingual learning environments. Although I may not share a verbal language with a particular child, I can communicate and build rapport almost immediately through sign language.

In classroom settings where some students (and teachers) are more proficient at speaking English, and others are more proficient at speaking a different language, incorporating sign language provides an opportunity for everyone in the class to be on equal footing. Since ASL is typically a non-native language for the students in the classroom, everyone starts as a beginner, and different children can emerge as the "top learners." I find it particularly endearing when a child who speaks a non-dominant language finds his or her "classroom voice" through sign language. Suddenly this child can be the language leader, answering questions and teaching others the signs they have mastered.

One of the things I appreciate about picture books is that children (and adults) can "read the pictures," even if they cannot read the words. When I read SEE THE COLORS with Eva, I read the words and she read the pictures. Another grown up could just as easily read the same book to her even if they could not read the English words, because they could talk about the story that is told through the illustrations and play games like, "Where is the mariposa?" like I did. As an added bonus, the sign language glossary images that appear on each page spread in the Story Time books make it possible for anyone who is reading the books to "read the glossary pictures," and incorporate the corresponding signs. This is a great point to remember when you are encouraging non-English speaking parents to read to their children. No matter what language they can read and write in, they can read any book with pictures . . .

As the summer progresses, my family continues to practice Spanish, and I've become very self-aware about the process of learning a new language. I'm finding ways to learn and practice Spanish that echo the ways I help others learn and practice American Sign Language. I'm listening to Spanish language recordings, and I am reading (and re-reading) stacks of Spanish/English picture books (with good 'ole Google Translate close at hand to help me decipher new words/conjugations). Some words I know, some words I recognize but can't quite remember, and some words are completely new. Each time I re-read a book, there are more and more words I know and recognize (and fewer and fewer words I need to look up). The repetition builds familiarity.  This is the same basic principle I emphasize when I teach people how to sign with their preverbal babies.

As I attempt to speak in Spanish and struggle to find various words, I notice that my hands begin to sign the word(s) I'm trying to say. It's as if my brain offers up the related "non-English word(s)" (e.g. ASL) that I know while it attempts to retrieve the less-familar Spanish vocabulary. Building on this idea, I've discovered that signing in ASL while I read in Spanish seems to help me remember the Spanish words. And, given that singing has been such an effective way for me to learn and teach ASL, I'm now on the hunt for songs that will help me build my vocabulary in Spanish. If you have any recommendations, please let me know!

I'd also love to hear how ASL has benefited your bilingual/multilingual family or classroom. Do you have a story about how sign language has bridged a communication gap in your life? Share your experiences via the contact link at the left or in the comment section below. And, if you'd like more ideas for enriching your learning environment with sign language, you can find the full series of posts here.


  1. In the playground setting, some of the behavioral class were challenges. One boy could sign fairly well and helped communicate with the deaf children. He had less behavior issues if he was communicating by sign. I always found that a little strange, but a accurate observation, no less.

    1. Yes, yes! Signing is a HUGE help in terms of behavior management. Here are some recent posts about that topic specifically:

      Happy Signing!