Life and Lexis

Archive for February 2013

On the first day in my Deaf classroom, I felt like a new student on the first day of school. I arrived with simple plan: Today, I will teach my new students the American Sign Language Alphabet. This way, we can communicate directly with one another about a few things using English spelling. I would plan each day after this depending on how they react to my ideas.

Trying to mask my anxiety, I greeted my students with a wave and a slowly formed “hello.”  I learned quickly that I had taken on one of the biggest challenges of my life. I also saw that, if done properly, this could be an incredibly rewarding experience. My translator, Hadeel, was my greatest asset. Through her translation, I was able to communicate complex ideas to my students. I was determined, however, to have a personal relationship with each and every one of my 20 students. But how was I going to do that? We had countless linguistic barriers between us.

Though I had studied Standard Arabic at my university, my level of Arabic was intermediate at best. Also, my students were not confident in their spoken Arabic ability, and most of them chose not to speak at all. To my advantage, they could read and write Arabic, though at a level significantly below their age expectations. Also, they had been taught to vocalize Arabic phonemes and many of them could read lips in Arabic. I was confident in my Arabic spelling ability. The Arabic alphabet is phonetic, and I soon saw that it would be beneficial to use it for phonetically spelling new English words.

I had also studied American Sign Language, but Arabic and American Sign Language were as different as spoken Arabic and English. My background in American Sign would not be useful to me, unless I had taught it to them first. American Sign Language, however, was not the focus of our class. My goal was that my students would be able to read and write proficiently in English. American Sign Language is recognized as a language distinct from English. It is used in the American deaf community and has its own vocabulary and grammar. The two languages cannot be used interchangeably.

My classroom was much like any other EFL classroom, with some significant differences. Teaching at one of the best universities in the Middle East, I was blessed with a class of twenty, highly intelligent and motivated young women. Their hearing loss ranged from moderately-severe to profoundly deaf. Their communication levels and styles varied greatly. Some of my students preferred to use Sign Language exclusively, others vocalized common words in Arabic while using Arabic Sign. To my surprise, I had students who had never been introduced to Sign Language and relied on lip reading alone.

My students were excited to have a new English teacher, but apprehensive. “We were worried that our teacher would not understand the deaf,” they later told me. “We were worried that she would try to make us speak or lose her patience with us.”

On the first day of class, we practised the American Sign Alphabet. They watched me vocalize the name of the letter, while forming the American Sign on my hands.  Those who were confident enough had the option of trying to produce the sound, but I would never assess speech in my class. We took turns in the classroom introducing ourselves in American Sign Language, spelling out the letters of our names. It was astonishing how quickly they were able to do this.

In my lessons,  I was careful to form the words correctly on my lips so my students could follow my English as I introduced new vocabulary. After I had spoken, my translator would translate my words to Arabic Sign. I watched for her to finish so that I could speak once again. I saw some recurring signs in my lesson, and unknowingly learned the meaning. The first words I learned in Arabic sign were learned unintentionally. “Correct,” “Words,” “Spelling,” “Wrong,” “Grammar.” At first, I did not have the confidence to use my new words. I found though, to increase my direct communication with the students, I would use the sign the words as I spoke in English. This way they were able to follow what I was saying, as I was saying it, and then look to the translator for clarification.

Every day, I learned new words in Arabic Sign Language by watching my translator and my students. I found that my students were willing to help me learn the language by correcting my errors and facial expressions.

“You cannot sign ‘weird’ and smile,” they showed me, “You must frown like this.”

The Alphabet of Arabic Sign Language

Over time, signing became a natural way to communicate with my students. A door for communication had opened up between us, and I found myself conversing with my students without the help of the translator. I was now able to greet them in the halls and ask them about their day. If my translator was absent or late, I was able to converse with them directly. I was surprised to have found that after just three months in the classroom, I was able to use my Arabic Sign and written Arabic to teach them new vocabulary and grammar concepts on my own. Just as I was patient with them, they remained patient with me as I acquired their language.

By using their L1 in the classroom, I was able to connect with my hearing impaired students on a higher level. Since my students were not able to acquire the English language using their hearing, we utilized their language to teach them reading and writing.

For the verbal students, I was able to explain sounds by using Arabic spelling for English words. My background in Speech-Language Pathology helped me to show my students proper lip shapes, tongue positioning and the difference between voiced and non voiced sounds. They had much success with this and I joked with them that they had an American accent similar to my own.

The most rewarding day of my career was when I was given my very own sign name. My students showed me my new name by tracing the outline of their eyes with their index finger and thumb and pinching the side. It was a reference to the almond shape of my eyes.

Basma, a profoundly deaf and mute student signed to me one day, “I love this English class. In three months, I feel like I’ve been studying English for six years!”
“I’m sooooo happy!” I responded in Arabic Sign Language, exaggerating my movements for emphasis.

Finally, the barriers between my students and I had been overcome.


Some ways Arabic was useful in the classroom. I wrote the Arabic word, and students translated to English.

From a seminar I conducted at the university to simulate language learning for the Hearing Impaired

From a seminar I conducted at the university to simulate language learning for the Hearing Impaired

Tags: , ,