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Communicating in silence

CMU ASL students bridge signed languages and cultures at Jamaican school for the deaf

Contact: Curt Smith


​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Life can be isolating for those who are hard of hearing or deaf. This spring, nine CMU students studying American Sign Language traveled to the Caribbean Christian Centre for the Deaf in Kingston, Jamaica, to learn how to bridge different signed languages and cultures during a one-week field trip. ​

CCCD students are not always able to connect with people outside their small, gated school community and be heard in their first language. Missionaries and other groups regularly assist with projects on school grounds, but few know American Sign Language.

"Unfortunately, in so many places in the world and throughout life, being deaf means that people don't understand you," said junior Megan Koelzer, a child development major from Grand Rapids. "We wanted them to see that there are people who don't use sign language as their primary language, but who want to learn it and make an effort to use it. We wanted them to know that they are worth getting to know in their own language."

While American Sign Language is used in the classroom at CCCD, Jamaican Sign Language is often used in social conversation. Since the two signed languages have some differences, students sometimes had to find ways to explain certain expressions or find common words in order to communicate accurately.

The school houses 74 students from across Jamaica, who range in age from 4 to 20 years old. While some of the Jamaican students bonded quickly with the CMU students, others approached conversations slowly — skeptical of whether or not students from CMU could communicate in their language.

"There was one student who watched from a distance as I talked with others from CCCD, and you could see that she gradually realized we did speak her language. I did understand her, so she came out of her shell and joined us," said junior Brooke Carroll, a communication disorders major from Birch Run. "It was exciting to make that impact."

 

In addition to group activities such as kickball, games created by the CMU students were used to encourage interaction. Once trust had been built, conversations moved from study topics and assignments to education goals, career aspirations and hobbies.

Carroll, Koelzer and fellow classmate Alex Marien describe their experience working with youth in Jamaica as unforgettable and life changing.

"I've never been out of the country and, even though our professors taught us about Jamaican culture, it was a bit of a culture shock," Koelzer said. "I was excited, but also nervous for the first day. As soon as we started interacting with the kids, it opened up this whole new world. I remember looking at my classmates, and you could tell that we all knew this was the start of a great week."

CMU faculty members Kendra Miller and Cheryl Barden not only saw a transformation in students at CCCD, but also their own students as the week progressed. Koelzer, Carroll and Marien said they felt a shift as well. The trip reinforced their interests in working with the deaf community.

"I don't know who learned more — us or the students at CCCD," said senior Alex Marien, an accounting and business information systems major from Warren. "It was proof that even though you may be a different age, from a different culture and speak a different language, you can become friends and form such a strong bond with another person."​​

Signed Languages Around the World

According to the World Federation of the Deaf, about 70 million people around the world use a signed language as their first language.

Signed languages vary from country to country or across regions within the same country.

American Sign Language is somewhat different than Jamaican Sign Language, which is used in social conversation. To bridge these differences, CMU and CCCD students had to communicate back and forth to explain differences and communicate accurately.


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