Sunday, November 14, 2010

Deaf immigrants must learn to master English and American Sign Language

From The Times News in Idaho:

At Jeff Ruprecht’s English as a second language class at College of Southern Idaho, Ardalan Asgari (pictured) sat in the front row, paying close attention and taking notes.

But he wasn’t watching the energetic teacher — at least, not often. Instead, his eyes were fixed on sign language interpreters Carol Anderson and Shannon Stowe.

Ardalan, 28, is an Iranian refugee who arrived in the U.S. about six months ago. Deaf immigrants like Ardalan aren’t just learning American Sign Language; they’re learning English at the same time, while adapting to both America’s customs and its deaf culture.

Different countries have their own sign languages with different signs and structures that reflect their languages’ grammar. Even English-speaking countries like Britain and Australia have their own systems.

At the Idaho School for the Deaf and the Blind in Gooding, teachers Cami Wilding and Betsy Holt have immigrant students from Myanmar (formerly Burma), Mexico and China in their American Sign Language immersion class. The student from Mexico had very little exposure to sign when she arrived, Holt said, while the students from China and Myanmar signed in their respective languages. All three caught on to ASL within weeks of starting school.

“Some of our students who come from another country, they already have a good language foundation in their language,” signed Wilding, as Holt interpreted. “So they come here and ... they pick up the language quite a bit faster because they already have that foundation. It doesn’t really matter what languages they have.” There are blind students from other countries who are learning both Braille and English, Wilding added.

Even for American deaf children, English is considered a second language; their first communication as children is through signing, said Stowe, who has worked with other deaf refugees through College of Southern Idaho.

But not all deaf immigrants are interested in learning ASL. Many are comfortable communicating with their families using their native signs, Stowe said.

When newly arrived refugees are interested, though, the refugee center will contact Stowe, who once worked as the center’s match grant coordinator. Currently, she is working with both Ardalan and a deaf student from Myanmar. Although Ardalan and the Myanmar girl have different signs, they were able to communicate with each other immediately.

“It is amazing to see that happen,” Stowe said.

When Ardalan and his sister Behnaz Asgari first arrived in Twin Falls six months ago, Behnaz needed an interpreter from English to Farsi, Stowe said. Behnaz would then interpret for her brother.

Now, communication is a little smoother. Behnaz has a better grasp on English, and Ardalan is getting better at English lip reading. Behnaz is also learning ASL at sessions with Stowe.

“I can understand the American Sign Language when they’re talking, but not too fast,” she said. “If they sign too fast, I can’t understand them.”

Lip reading is coming a little slower to Ardalan. In Persian Sign Language, signers move their mouths at the same time as speaking. Not all American signers do the same, Stowe said, making it harder for him to catch on.

“Writing everything in English, I have problems,” he said, as Behnaz interpreted.

English classes can be exhausting for him, Stowe said; not only is he absorbing ASL vocabulary from the interpreters, he is learning English and lip reading from Ruprecht.

“Sometimes ... he says his mind is just boggled,” Stowe said. “He’s tired.”

Language isn’t the only barrier to adjusting. Ardalan is also having a hard time finding a job. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act covers non-citizens, he hasn’t been able to find work.

“I don’t like (being in) this position,” he said.

The students in Gooding face similar problems. Like any immigrants, they struggle to get used to the food. It’s easy to find friends at the school, though, Holt said. The realities of being deaf in a hearing world are universal.

“They’ve shared the same experiences, no matter if they’re in Burma or Mexico or America,” she said.