Jan 14, 2016

Posted by in Featured, My Viewpoints | 0 Comments

Sign Language: Why is it not taught in every school?

Inevitably in America you will end up in school, faced with the decision of which foreign language you wish to learn for the mandatory years that you must take a language. There will be those kids that really look forward to this, excel in it, and overall enjoy the experience; and then never go on to use that skill ever again. Likewise, there will be even more kids who grudgingly make it through their language classes, manage to pass somehow, and wonder what the point of it is; and they also will never use the language again either. It will only be an extreme minority of students that ever end up using the foreign language that they learn in school (in this case, not college), because here in America we are a predominantly English speaking country (with many wishing we would declare English our national language as at the time of writing this, it is not).

Language in school honestly is a good thing. It’s something that really helps to round-out an education, it’s another area to let kids sample to see if perhaps being a translator (or something akin to that) would be of interest for them to pursue as a career, and generally speaking it’s a great idea to be able to speak more than one language. However, what is the point if we’re just forcing kids to pick between French and Spanish (typically the two most common languages offered) and then they’ll never use it again?

I personally took a total of four and a half years of Spanish, and a year and a half of French between middle and high school (we had to take half a year of Spanish and French respectively in 6th grade, 7th grade we took French, 8th grade we took Spanish, and then you had to pick for at least 3 years of a language in high school). Of all this language, I can still recite the alphabet in French, toss off a few cute words here and there in that language, and sort of put together some sentences in Spanish. I was much better, but as they say, if you don’t use it, you lose it.

Now, what I would have liked to have taken in school, but it was not offered, was American Sign Language. Which is a shame, because I’ve had at least two notable instances now post-high school where it would have come in very handy.

The first instance was in 2009, just two years after I graduated school, and I was working retail for a kiosk in the mall selling calendars. It was still early in the season, September or October (yeah, the kiosk opened that early), and it was as slow as you’d imagine with a few months still remaining on the calendars people already owned. I distinctly remember being a bit startled, because suddenly there was a man next to me (I had been reading to pass time), and he was gesturing. It took a few moments for me to realize he had a question, was deaf, and needed pen and paper so he could communicate to me. Which I was happy to give him, and we resolved his question quickly and easily enough; but it really hit home to me that we both spoke English and yet couldn’t communicate without having to write notes to each other. How sad is that? He has a language he could use, but because I cannot use that form of English as well he is barred in the world.

My second notable incident was a frequent customer at Bruegger’s Bagels when I was working as a shift supervisor. I was the morning person, and once a week we had a lady who was deaf that came in the store. No one wanted to deal with her, ever, and I admit there were days that even I did not want to be the person to take her order. The reason being that she refused to use pen and paper to communicate with us. Instead, she would grunt and point, and because it was through glass we didn’t always know exactly what she was pointing at. This only proved to make her upset, because we weren’t getting things right on the first try, and thus the experience would go downhill. Once you (finally) had her order together, at the register she made sure you rang up every item as she had ordered it. This is significant for one reason that many retail food workers will relate to. There is an item on the menu that is made of up of a slice of cheese, four veggies, and a meat on a bagel as a breakfast sandwich. Now, the menu item has a specific meat, cheese, and veggies for it; however any combination there-of counts. Naturally, it also rings up under the specific item cheaper than if you punched in all the items. If you tried to do this for this customer however, to save her some money, she would lose her mind. And I can understand, being someone with a handicap like that probably meant she had been taken advantage of in the past and she was advocating for herself. It was frustrating though because you’d try to write it down and explain why to her, and she would have none of the writing at all. So it made for a very uncomfortable experience sometimes. I can only think that if I had the ability to sign to her, that perhaps the experience could have been better for both her and I. Sadly, this was not something I could do, and I still think of her to this day and wish there were more I could have done to communicate with her.

I really do think it is sad that I could not communicate with fellow English speakers simply because they were born (or became) deaf. I think it’s sad that kids who are deaf in school also will not be able to communicate with other children. Why is it that we allow this, that we do not start sign language at a young age when it’d be easy for us to learn? Personally, I think we should consider this, and get sign language into elementary school. Imagine the conversations we have all missed out on due to this barrier! Imagine the conversations that could be had! It’s incredible, isn’t it?

All I can do at this point is find continuing education classes in American Sign Language so I can prevent this from happening again in my experiences. And to try and find ways to advocate for ASL in every school in America. I can only hope that others will join me in that plight, because of all the languages we can be required to learn, that surely is the most important in this country. Let the Spanish, the French, the German, etc be electives.

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