At a Loss of Foreign Words

By Kaarina Huovinen

Have you ever realized that there are students who know more than four languages at Gallaudet University? This trait does not guarantee a student will acquire American Sign Language (ASL) or English easily, though. In addition, many international students still struggle with “culture shock.”

Alexander Quaynor, Senior ESL Trainer, has taught English to the international students for almost 24 years in the English Language Institute (ELI) at Gallaudet University.  According to him, acquisition of English or any other language depends on the background of the individual students. Quaynor says: “If my students have a strong knowledge of their first language (L1), they will be able to transfer that ability to learn the second language (L2), the third (L3) language and so forth well.”

Quaynor has also noticed that European international students adapt more quickly to a new language environment. This is possibly due to the similarities in alphabets. English is formulated from parts of the modern Latin alphabet system.[1]

Gallaudet students from the Middle East may experience a culture shock in addition to being overwhelmed by new languages.  Quaynor clarifies: “I will give an example about culture shock that some male students from Middle East might face. There are many female workers in important positions, such as teachers, at Gallaudet University. This is unusual for many male students from the Middle East.” Also, students from Middle East use the Arabic alphabet, which is drastically different from the Latin alphabet.

Photo by Kaarina Huovinen

A student from Saudi-Arabia, Raaed Abu-Atteeyah, shares his experiences about the process of learning English and ASL at Gallaudet University. He knows Saudi-Arabian Sign Language, home signs (that is used only with his family), Jordanian Sign Language, basic Arabic language, English and ASL. Abu-Atteeyah attended the ELI program in 2004. It took about one semester for him to feel comfortable using ASL. Abu-Atteeyah mentioned that he still uses a dictionary when using English. He explains: “ I wasn’t able to master the Arabic Language in Saudi-Arabia because we weren’t offered a good education at the school for the deaf in my country. It is ironic that I now know English better than my own language. ”

Abu-Atteeyah feels that he hasn’t gotten sufficient feedback on his ASL and English skills from Gallaudet University. For instance, Abu-Atteeyah stated that in one of his GSR (General Studies Requirements) classes, the professor highlighted grammatical errors on his papers, but never explained how to correct them. His ELI teachers were very understanding and supportive of his learning process with English and ASL. Because Abu-Atteeyah didn’t know ASL well, he felt American students at Gallaudet University treated him like an “alien.” He assumes that the reason for this is perhaps American students aren’t aware about other cultures.

Sofie Heilmann, a Danish student at Gallaudet University, had a similar experience when it came to the lack of support from Gallaudet University. She knows Danish, Danish Sign Language, English, ASL, German, and Spanish. In Heilmann’s case, it took about two or three months to be able sign ASL naturally. Americans weren’t interested in talking with Heilmann when she was still in the acquisition stage.

Heilmann attended JumpStart for New Signers before the beginning of her first semester in 2010. She learned a lot of ASL through this program.  “I learned the most ASL outside of the JumpStart classroom, in the real world, though” – Heilmann says. Heilmann also added that she preferred asking about signs from international friends than from American people because she felt it was “safer” to ask about such things to her peers.

English and ASL struggles apply to Asian students as well. Quaynor says: “Asian students also experience this struggle with alphabets, but their persistence and diligence help overcome their struggle with English.”

A Gallaudet student, Sung An, from South Korea, knows ASL, English, Korean Sign Language and Korean language. An was in summer school at Gallaudet University for 6 weeks in 2008. “I didn’t know how to write and read English at this time, so I enrolled in summer school to learn basic vocabulary, writing and reading English for the beginners at the English Language Institute”. An then entered the ELI program in the spring of 2009 to further his education in two languages. It took about one semester for him to be able to to sign ASL fluently.  The dictionary has been a huge help for him. He too felt that American students didn’t have a lot of patience while he was learning English and ASL. However, according to him, some professors were very “cool” if they knew An’s situation as an international student. An says that Gallaudet has supported his learning process well through ELI, tutoring, SI (Supplimentary Instructions) and the professors’ office hours.

A Japanese student, Ikumi Kawamata, arrived at Washington DC five years ago. Kawamata’s first languages are Japanese and Japanese Sign Language. She didn’t feel comfortable with ASL until a year ago. Kawamata says that some American people were very understandable and they adapted their ASL to international students’ needs.  Kawamata states, “I really enjoyed it when some Americans signed more slowly and used visual expressions, instead of using continuous spelling when I didn’t understand the language fully.”  Kawamata recalls a situation two years ago in which she had a presentation and had some ASL grammar mistakes. Her classmates didn’t ask Kawamata what she was trying to say. Instead, they signed quietly to other classmates and wondered what Kawamata tried to express. She wishes “Americans could communicate with me directly. That is how I improve on my language the best.”

Kawamata did find support from ELI during the first academic year at Gallaudet University. She also used tutoring services to help with English grammar mistakes. Like in Heilmann’s case, Kawamata learned most of her ASL and English outside of the classroom. According to Kawamata, some professors could use new methods to teach English such as visual technology (like PowerPoints and Smartboards). This would greatly help in English acquisition.

International students whose first languages aren’t ASL and English had to seek help through different programs like ELI and JumpStart for New Signers.  If an American student is going to another country where English and ASL are not major languages, he/she would be in the same situation as the current international students. If Americans and international students could meet in the middle, both parties could benefit. International students could learn ASL faster and Americans would get an opportunity to experience a richness of languages and cultures from other countries.

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One Response to “At a Loss of Foreign Words”

  1. Rebecca Layton
    April 18, 2012 at 12:56 PM #

    Being a SI for an ELI class has truly opened my eyes to the struggles these ELI students have. I have gained much respect for them and am in awe of them, they have taught me so much in return. We often discuss how the English language is used in relation to their native language, and I inquire about their culture and way of life and how it differs from us. I wish that more American students here at Gallaudet would be welcoming and eager to get to know some ELI students, for it truly can broaden their horizons.

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