Saturday, January 10, 2009

Multiple Meanings

I have become increasingly interested in the reading processes of Deaf and hard of hearing children who use American Sign Language as their first language. When a hearing child is asked to read a passage out loud, the teacher only listens to the words the child speaks. There is nothing inherently telling about the way a child says a word that would indicate whether or not the child understands the meaning behind each word. The word "bat" will sound the same in the sentence "The boy hit the ball with the bat" and "The bat flew in through the window".

In American Sign Language however the word "bat" would be signed differently in each of these contexts. A teacher sitting with an emergent reader would immediately know if the child understood the sentence by the sign the student chose while reading. To me this is an amazing advantage to ameliorate the reading development of young Deaf and hard of hearing children.

Consider the following example:

A five-year-old Deaf student in my dual language (American Sign Language and English) first grade class eagerly walks over to me with an emergent reader text written by Monica Hughes. She takes a seat beside me and reads the title of the book, The Play, utilizing manual communication without voice. Although the word ‘play’ in this context indicates a theatrical performance, she uses the sign meaning ‘to play’ as in having fun. 

Throughout the reading her use of this incorrect conceptual sign hinders her full understanding of the text. It is not until after the reading when I show her the appropriate conceptual sign that the ‘Aha!’ moment takes place. Looking at the cover of the book now her expression changes as the author’s intended meaning emerges. She notices the stage curtain and the masks in the children’s hands and says “Oh!” with the bright-eyed clarity of understanding.

A week later she brings me another emergent reader also entitled The Play and proudly reads it to me using the correct conceptual sign. She excitedly reminds me of our discussion the week before by indicating the distinction between the two meanings of the word ‘play’. 

This time, paying attention to the context of the story and the words that surround it, she chose the correct sign.

These decisions are constantly necessary when reading for meaning. And without meaning, 'reading' is simply an exercise in decoding.

For those of you interested in viewing some examples of this in action, Lauren and I have made another video. In it we chose four words (sign, play, letter, mean) and provide two sentences where the same word has a different meaning based on the context.

The word 'sign' is used in the sentences "If you break a mirror, it's a sign that you will have bad luck for seven years" and "Can you sign this paper?"

The word 'play' is used in the sentences "I enjoy playing with my friends" and "Did you watch that play last night?"

The word 'letter' is used in the sentences "Do you know all your letters?" and "I wrote my mom a letter."

And the word 'mean' is used in the sentences "Do you mean something different?" and "That girl is mean. She is not nice."

For more on this check out these books by Kristin Anderson Di Perri. And of coure, feel free to ask questions (but raise your hand and take turns :)


MSthebilder said...

I had no idea there was so much meaning to different meanings of words in sign language! It is so cool that I'll follow your blog to learn more stuff about it. check out mine too.

la bellina mammina said...

Gary, thanks! Happy New Year too - I've missed reading your blog too!!! I'll get back on track soon.

Ashley & Jason said...

gary- i don't have your email address - use this one since this is public: info AT
and we'll plan you trip !! i am sooo excited! this is great!

Reya Mellicker said...

What a great post! I tried to pay attention to the lesson but found it impossible not to just gaze at your face during the vid.

I guess with students who have hearing, a big discussion would clear up any misunderstandings about word meanings.

The work you do is so amazing. Much love and admiration to you! Wow.

Mona said...

i have often wondered about that regarding ASL & thought ( correctly so) that there must be different signs for different meanings, where as in written or spoken language the semantics emerges through context and cross references!

Gary said...

Mason - ASL is an amazing language indeed. If you want to learn more click on the ASL video tag on the label cloud (see sidebar) and watch some of our other vids. And I did check out your fledgling blog. Welcome to the blogosphere.

Reya - Why thank you. My mind is so wrapped around this subject at the moment and I guess it will be for the next few years. I plan to make this the topic of my dissertation (of course it'll go deeper than what I jotted down here). You are exactly right, if there were misunderstandings with a hearing child that would have to be rooted out in a different way. The interesting thing for me is that this is an instance where ASL is actually an advantage. There is so much out there in educational literature about ASL students falling behind, etc and I am happy to turn some of those negative feelings into positives.

Mona - Right you are as well. Context is everything.

lettuce said...

this is so interesting Gary, i love learning from you about signing.

this could suggest that theres more depth of meaning or more subtlety in sign language - do you think so?
but does it reduce the potential for puns?

i love your vids
and still hope to visit your class some day

Gary said...

Letty - Glad to see that you were able to take a break from grading all those papers to pop on over here. Now, I don't know if there is more depth of meaning in ASL, I wouldn't know how to qualify that, but I find that folks are sometimes surprised to learn that any complex concept can be discussed using ASL. There is no limit to the depth of conversation (other than the knowledge base of those engaged in it). And there are puns and such in ASL. For example, signing 'where' under your open palm to mean 'underwear'. Get it? It is very much the humor of the Catskills, which I adore.

I'd love to have you visit the class sometime. It'll happen!

Florecita said...

Gary Happy New Year... that this new path may be filled with the wonders of life, those you create and the others the Universe brings to you..

I have a friend, Steph, from my Nederlands class, cause I am currently living in Belgium hoping to get marry here if burocracy allows, and one of my classmates works with American Sign Language, she is really cool, she also has a blog

Big hug from here and greetings to your mom!!!

mouse (aka kimy) said...

great post! so interesting and great video....sounds like a wonderful research area for your dissertation!

was loverly seeing you and lauren! tell lauren mouse says hi! and that I still know my sign!! love seeing the difference in the signs for the words based on what they mean....and for the meanie mean sign

Barbara said...

I never knew about this ability to distinguish words that sound the same in ASL. Which brings me to a question: Is there an equivalent for foreign languages or is ASL unique to American English? For example, is there a BSL for British Sign Language?

I would love to know how you first became interested in working with the deaf?

J. David Zacko-Smith said...

Gary - happy new year, my friend!

Yet another wonderful post. You KNOW that I am all about the power of language, and so this post's subject is right up my alley. You always are clued into my thoughts. I think you must surely be an excellent teacher, and I am so inspired by your work . . .


Arielle Bair said...

That is so, so interesting. I know it makes perfect sense, but I suppose not being hearing impaired, I never gave it much thought! How wonderful to be able to witness that "aha!" moment that took place. You're such a cool guy, Gary. Have I mentioned that before? :)

WAT said...

Oh my darling hubby. Look at you and L in yer new video clip! I tells ya, I am always intrigued by what you two do, most especially you YOU BIG HUNK.

You and I need tans! LOL!

Mickle in NZ said...

What a wonderful way to learn and understand the different meanings of the "same" word. This isn't something I ever think of, being fortunate enough to grasp the many meanings as I learnt and grew up.

I was hindred by having appalling handwriting. Atage 7 was put in the group that also struggled with writing and reading - written and oral. Drove me batty not understanding how difficult it was for others in the group to read and read out aloud - I was confident and competent at this part of language.

So, we all have skills in different ways.

Your and Lauren's teaching doesn't lump some children all together in one group of "strugglers" just because they struggle with one aspect of several aspects of reading, writing and language.

For Barbara - while we might all be english "speaking" nations, the US, UK, NZ and Aussie each have their own version of Sign Language.

Here in NZ there are 3 official languages - English (NZ version), Maori and NZ Sign Language.

Gary - however it is - the gift of language is a gift to treasure.

Thank you for such an ispiring blog - and a belated Happy New Year from Summer in Wellington, New Zealand.

findingmywingsinlife said...

Very informative and thought provoking. Makes you look at language in a whole different way. Whether it is signing or spoken, the creative expression of communication between one and another finds a way to be "heard".

Gary said...

Florecita - I popped on over to your friends blog and you are right, it is interesting (and heavy). It seems like you have lots of great stuff in the works. Congratulations and best to you in 2009!

Kimy - I was looking through ASL cards yesterday and saw a beautiful color card (drawing) of someone signing "mouse" and thought of you. I should scan it and email it to you.

Barbara - Oops! Sorry I missed answering your question but at least Mikle picked up my slack. There are different sign languages in different countries but American Sign Language most resembles French Sign Language because it was brought here from France. It is a fascinating history that I should actually write about at some point. And you also gave me an idea for another future post in answering your other question about how I became interested/involved in working with the Deaf. That's two post ideas! Gee, thanks!

JDZS - I thought you might like this one.

Arielle - Right back at ya!

Wat - I DO need a tan but as it is snowing at the moment the only color I'll probably get will be from a wind burn.

Mickle - Thanks for visiting and for this informative comment. You taught me something new. I hope you will return. Happy belated New Year to you too.

Wings - Your comment makes me think of those deaf children in the past who grew up in a home where their parents did not sign or communicate with them at all. Those children devised their own way of communicating that only they could understand. As you write, humans will find a way to communicate one way or another.


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