Deaf and Multilingual


Available for purchase from

A couple of years ago, I found myself confronted with something I’d never met up with before: a student who was hard-of-hearing, who needed to learn about teaching English as a foreign language.  I spoke with her translator, and soon found out that during my lessons the translator would be working in three languages simultaneously: English, Dutch, and Dutch Sign Language.  I determined to find out more about dealing with this student and her needs so that I might be able to support her in her journey through the world of teacher education.

Once started on this journey, I found a whole new world of communication I had never really thought about before, and made some interesting discoveries.  For instance, something that had never occurred to me before was the fact that sign language and spoken language are two separate languages.  Children who use spoken and sign language are actually bilingual.  Also, sign language differs from language to language (even between British and American English), complete with dialectal differences.  What an amazing discovery!

I searched the internet, and soon found the book pictured above: Deaf and Multilingual, an informative book written by authors with first-hand experience in the field.  It is a very practical guide for teaching a foreign language to deaf or the hard-of-hearing, and can be ordered via this site.  I ordered it and the minute it arrived, settled on my sofa with a cup of tea for what I hoped would be a useful read.  Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

The book starts by describing why deaf and hard-of-hearing learners might want to learn foreign languages.  Apparently, since communication with the “hearing world” in the mother tongue is often quite difficult, many make the assumption that teaching these learners foreign languages would be a waste of time.  However, these people have just as much a need to learn how to communicate as those who can hear, and foreign language learning helps meet that need.  There are, however, very real issues that these people have to deal with, and teachers can help meet those needs.

For instance, learners cannot just “lip-read” a new language, since the new sounds are created using unfamiliar lip patterns that need to be learned.  Also, they need to be able to see what they need to hear.  Every time the teacher turns to the board to write something down, the deaf learner can no longer see the teacher’s face, and so the communication comes to an abrupt halt.  Also, in classrooms where “smart boards” are in use, it is common practice to turn off the classroom lights so that the board is easier to see.  For the learner, the result is that the teacher’s face, again, becomes hard to see, making understanding that much more difficult.

Then there’s the challenge of divided attention.  Since these learners take everything in visually, they cannot read a handout and listen to the teacher at the same time.  They  have to choose what to do at that moment – read the handout or look at (listen to) the teacher in turns.

Taking part in group discussions is also quite the challenge for these learners, since it’s not always clear who is talking, and by the time they’ve located the speaker, they’ve already missed part of what was said.

There are simple things teachers can do to support these learners.   Here is a short list of things that can be easily implemented:

  1. Face the learner when speaking.  Speak clearly, but don’t exaggerate the sounds.  When writing on the board, stop talking.
  2. Allow for reaction time.  When giving directions, leave some time in between the various steps, as background noise (such as opening books) can make it more difficult for the hard-of-hearing to hear the instructions.
  3. Use visual support such as power points, posters, and handouts.  Make certain to allow time for reading these before carrying on with instruction.
  4. Make sure there is sufficient lighting.
  5. Cue the learner by pointing at the speaker during question-and-answer sessions or other group conversations.  This way, the learner can follow the communication easier.
  6. During group projects, allow the learner to work in pairs or in smaller group.

There are other things teachers can do as well, such as allowing the learner a copy of the teacher’s notes ahead of time, along with a detailed syllabus, so that the learner can come to class well-prepared for the lesson.

This book was an eye-opener for me, and I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one with questions about how to best support the hard-of-hearing or deaf learner in the English lessons.   However, it’s important to find ways to allow all learners to participate in an increasingly globalist society, now more than ever, and this book is a good step in the right direction.




Sign of the times – ASL in ESL

ASLsignlanguageimageIt was time to write English lesson plans for my first-graders’ first week of school.  Of course, we’d be remembering all of the stuff we’d learned the year before, such as numbers, colors, and things we find in school.  The question for me was how to review these words in a way that was exciting and interesting?  How could I incorporate the various intelligences into the lessons?  I finally hit upon an idea in the middle of the night.  It was so inspiring that I could hardly sleep the rest of the night, and first thing in the morning I raced to start up youtube on my computer to search for videos I could use with my children.

I soon found that combining the terms “ASL” (American Sign Language) with “song” and the topic at hand gave the best results.  Before long, I had found just the right video for reviewing counting:

The song combined with the gestures was an instant hit with the children, and they begged to sing the song again and again.  Later, I found even more examples of instructional videos I could use:  farm animals, Christmas songs,  and songs about food were soon added to various lesson plans.  I found that the children remembered new words easily when combined with the gestures.  I incorporated the gestures into storytelling exercises and songs in which the children would provide the word indicated by the gesture, or played guessing games with them.

Later on, I read about how TPR (Total Physical Response) is often used in ESL/EFL lessons.  I realized that by incorporating sign language into my lessons, I not only encouraged children to develop their bodily intelligence, I had also been applying the principles of TPR to my teaching without even realizing it.

Sometimes it's easier for young children to understand what feeling one is naming when it's combined with motions.

Sometimes it’s easier for young children to understand what feeling one is naming when it’s combined with motions.

I had always used certain hand gestures in my teaching, but now I had a new tool in hand: official sign language.  Certainly I’m no expert in the area of sign language, but knowing how to find and learn useful, recognized gestures has allowed me to develop a consistent “gesticulative vocabulary” for use in class.

Are there other teachers who use sign language in their teaching?  If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences.