June 17, 2007

Deaf ESL Students Doubly Challenged


A teacher at Portland High School recently signed "See you later, alligator" in American Sign Language to two deaf students as he left the room.

The students, Woro Yanga and Yuri Kegl, looked puzzled. They asked their sign-language interpreter why the teacher, who is not deaf, was talking about an alligator.

The phrase makes sense in spoken English, of course, because of the rhyme. However, it doesn't translate easily into American Sign Language.

The incident illustrates how learning English can be a challenge for deaf students, whose native language, in many cases, is ASL - which has its own grammar, punctuation and sentence order.

Woro and Yuri faced an additional challenge when they enrolled as freshmen at Portland High School this year. Because the two girls are immigrants, they are learning two new languages: English and American Sign Language.

The sign languages they used in their home countries - Egyptian Sign Language for Woro and Nicaraguan Sign Language for Yuri - are distinct from ASL, with different hand gestures, the girls said.

Woro and Yuri are the first Portland High students who are both deaf and new to this country, according to teachers and interpreters at the school. And as Woro and Yuri have learned ASL and English, the staff has had to figure out the best way to teach them.

"It presents a challenge. Nobody around the country has really figured it out yet," said Deborah Howard, curriculum coordinator for the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf, a part of the Maine Educational Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. "We've definitely had to think outside the box."

And Howard said that as the number of immigrants in the state grows, Maine should expect to see more deaf students from other countries.

John Segota, a spokesman for a Virginia-based professional association called Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages Inc., said that the group doesn't have statistics on the number of deaf English as a Second Language students in the United States.

He said the number of students with limited English proficiency is growing significantly nationwide, so it's natural to assume that more deaf students would be among them.

U.S. Department of Education figures show that the number of students from kindergarten through 12th grade with limited English proficiency has grown almost 61 percent, from nearly 3.2 million in the 1994-95 school year to 5.1 million in 2004-2005.

As a result, there were a number of sessions on teaching strategies for deaf ESL students at TESOL's annual convention this year.

Howard said Maine currently has six such students. They include two younger students at the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf - a state-run facility for deaf and hearing-impaired children on Mackworth Island in Falmouth that serves students through eighth grade - as well as Woro and Yuri.

Portland High's student body, which numbers more than 1,000, is very diverse, with about 30 different languages spoken in its hallways. Teachers are used to working with students who are learning English.

Teachers there also are experienced working with deaf students, because the Governor Baxter facility had to close its tiny high school in 2003; since then, those students have been sent to Portland High.

The students attend mainstream classes at the high school but receive extra support from sign-language interpreters and teachers of the deaf.

Woro, who is 15, said that school was very difficult at first because she didn't understand what her interpreter was telling her. "I didn't know American Sign Language," she said.

She and Yuri, 17, spoke recently at the school with the aid of interpreters Regan Thibodeau and Cid Pollard.

Woro demonstrated how the signs for a basic word such as "dog" are different in Egyptian Sign Language and ASL.

"I'm starting to get it now," she said.

"In Nicaraguan Sign Language, there are different signs altogether," Yuri said.

She said she sometimes finds herself unconsciously mixing up Nicaraguan signing and ASL.

"It's still a challenge," Yuri said.

But she said it "really helped" that Thibodeau happened to know some Nicaraguan Sign Language and could explain when Yuri got confused.

She said it would be useful if all deaf immigrant students could have interpreters who know their country's sign language.

Thibodeau, who teaches ASL at Portland High, said the two students are much better now at understanding.

Stephen Dyro, an English as a Second Language teacher at the school, said this is his first time teaching a deaf student who is just learning English. He said he focuses a lot on reading skills with Woro because the more a person reads, the more it registers.

And Woro said English is one of her favorite classes.

Rachel Powers, a teacher of the deaf at the school, said she relied a lot on pictures in working with the students at first. She indicated that they have made much progress.

"It's really neat to see how much we understand each other now," Powers said.

The girls say they are getting used to Portland High's large size and to being integrated in a regular school. In their home countries, they attended schools for the deaf.

And both teens are excited about the educational opportunities in the United States.

Woro was born in Sudan but grew up in Egypt, and came with her family to the United States three years ago. She didn't start her formal education until she was 9, but said she wants to be a veterinarian.

Yuri, adopted by a Yarmouth family last year, is not sure what career path she wants to pursue. She said she wants to go to college, perhaps to Gallaudet University in Washington, a world leader in education for the deaf.

Yuri said Nicaragua lacks such colleges. "To go to college, that's not even an option" there, she said.

Staff Writer Tess Nacelewicz can be contacted at 791-6367 or at:

[email protected]



Gallaudet Univeristy's Odyssey Magazine devotes an issue to deaf ESL students:


Sign languages of the world:


Bilingual education and ESL links:


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