Lessons Learned as a Language Student

I am a monolingual SLP.  English is the only language I use.  (I have some understanding of Spanish after 4 years of it in high school and a couple of semesters in college, but not enough to use in a mutual and meaningful conversation).


While my background in speech-language pathology allows me to consider myself an expert in English, I am not sure if that expertise is helping me learn a language used in a whole different modality – American Sign Language.


Since I have never been a very visual or spatially organized person, ASL is quite difficult for me. Right now, I am nearing the end of my 3rd semester of ASL courses.  I have 2 more classes in the sequence before the college says I can consider myself “conversational” in ASL.  In spite of this,  my ASL professor has consistently required us to attend Deaf events and actually converse 😉


Last night, I attended one of these required events with a one of my classmates.  While we have both attended Deaf events in the past, none of them threw us into the middle of the conversation to the level that this event did.


The room for this social event was set up like a living room with two couches and a few arm chairs.  I sat on one of the couches right next to a sign language interpreter and my classmate sat in an arm-chair to the other side of her.  There were a total of 5 hearing people at the event and 5 Deaf people.


After some small talk, the conversation flowed like any conversation would – some topics sparked the interest of the whole group and we were all engaged together, but most of the time people took turns chatting in pairs or groups of three before getting drawn into conversations taking place between other pairs of people at the event.


As the least proficient signer of the group, I struggled to follow along even when someone was signing directly two me and communicating at a slow pace.


I found myself in the position similar to what my language students likely face on a daily basis:

  • I only understood about half of what was signed.
  • Sometimes when I didn’t understand, I acted as if I did to avoid the embarrassment of admitting my confusion or the time it would take for someone to explain things to me.
  • Other impairments compounded my language difficulties.  (I hate wearing my glasses, even though I need them to communicate in ASL so I missed the beginning of the conversation because I hadn’t put my glasses on yet).
  • At the times when I did understand the flow of conversation, and had a comment or question, I usually didn’t say anything because I didn’t know how to.  My receptive ASL skills are still much better than my expressive skills.

So, with all of the challenges I faced, what actually helped me to understand?

The same things you’ve always known to help people understand language:

  1. CONTEXT – this was the biggest help of all! (Yes, even more helpful than repetition or definitions, etc.).  If I knew the topic AND had the background knowledge associated with that topic, it helped me understand what was being communicated.  Context was definitely key.
  2. REPETITION – going right along with context, seeing the same sign multiple times while talking about one topic helped me understand.  The same word used in multiple ways about a topic I understood, was crucial.  Each new sentence with the same signed helped me hone in on the sign’s meaning and refine my hypothesis about what the word meant.
  3. SELF-ADVOCACY – Now that I have latched onto a topic I am familiar with and someone communicating with me directly, there are still words that are not yet in my ASL vocabulary. Asking someone to sign slowly or repeat themselves was very helpful.   I also needed additional processing time to retrieve signs and associations from my memory and assemble them into a meaningful thought in my mind.  Requesting these “accommodations” (go slowly, allow additional time, etc.) helped me follow along.

Having that level of difficulty with language was very uncomfortable, especially for an SLP.  I am used to language being so easy for me to grasp, that I think I can teach it to others!  However, learning not only a different language, but a language communicated in a different modality, thrust me into a position that is far from familiar.

Fortunately, I believe we do some of our best learning from the difficult situations.  Here’s what I am taking back with me from this experience;  In reflecting on my own clinical habits, I noticed that when I worked with pre-school students, I used context, themes, and repetition a lot more than I do now.  With my junior high kids, I explain word meanings, dissect word structures and meanings, employ word recognition strategies, practice using the words in sentences, etc.  However, I seem to have moved away from consistent contexts and word bombardment.

While at the Deaf event, I did occasionally try to connect signs with meanings for similar looking signs, I didn’t feel that it was the strategy I relied on most.  Yet, with my junior high kids, I had moved toward this higher-level metacognitive approach to vocabulary.   Sure, some signs I saw resembled other signs that I already know, so I wondered if they meant something similar. However, the context/theme of the conversation was more important for me to gain some initial understanding.  That is what provided me with a clozed set of concepts in my mind.  Repetition then helped me clarify and refine my initial guesses about word meanings.

So, how am I going to apply all of this?

In working with my middle school students, here is what I will try to do more consistently:

  1. CONTEXT – I will select topics that the students are very familiar with already (e.g., Christmas traditions, turning in homework, facebooking, etc.) and use target words in conversation and readings revolving around these topics.  I will recycle topics that students are the most familiar with to teach other words.  The background knowledge is key.  I will also continue to provide my students with experiences to enhance background knowledge, such as taking them on field trips, watching movies together, reading books, etc.  However, when it comes to teaching word meanings, I will focus on contexts that the kids have experienced repeatedly.
  2. REPETITION – I will find/create stories that use the target word multiple times (at least 5-10) within the same story.  While my students do get multiple exposures to target words already, I want a bombardment of the word used in context.
  3.  SELF-ADVOCACY – I will continue to help students recognize when they don’t understand so that they can ask for help.  This is easier said than done.  Over the past year, I have noticed that my kids don’t always “know what they don’t know.”  They think that a word sounds familiar so they make an erroneous guess about what it means.  Try doing this 2 or more in one story and you could end up with a very different image and conclusion than what the author intended.  I work on this by encouraging visualization, telling students to ask me about sentences they can’t picture – including dates, sizes, etc – and telling them to ask me about sentences that look “weird” when they picture them.  I also sometimes ask students to draw what the words make them picture.  This provides me with great opportunities to see what they were thinking and clarify misconceptions and misinterpretations.  My students are now using these strategies in the classroom and asking teachers more questions when they don’t understand.  We will also work on using “just a minute” or some phrase to buy them more processing time when they need it.

With all of that said, I realize that I can never really be in my students’ shoes.  While learning a second language can be challenging (especially when it’s communicated in a different modality than you’re used to), I have the benefit of background knowledge and proficient communication skills in my native language.  I also only have to deal with these challenges for a couple of hours at a time, not every hour of my life.  However, I am very THANKFUL for getting to experience a few of the difficulties my students may face in their day-to-day lives.  Every opportunity to understand their experiences better makes me a better SLP 🙂

“Hard”/”Difficult” http://lifeprint.com/asl101/pages-signs/h/hard.htm


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