Bilingual patients: English and sign


The language that’s called ASL

I have some, I don’t do it well

     But there are patients of mine

    Whose first language is sign,

And, Oh! The stories they tell.

This afternoon I did the first well child check on the last baby I delivered.  The mother of the thriving infant gave me permission to publish here a section of her story.

Not deaf but bilingual, she learned ASL first and English came second.  Her children will learn both languages. 

A tight-knit, loving family, the Sioux City deaf community has welcomed all five children with unadulterated warmth.

When first she came to me as a patient I knew a few signs of ASL, but I couldn’t really count it as one of my languages.  I know a few words or phrases of 36 languages, but I only speak two fluently and three others roughly.  There is a big difference between being able to say, for example, ‘friend’ in Northern Cheyenne (holowe) and actually having your head in the language.

My wife signs well, and my sister, Ilise, is a professional interpreter for the deaf, but they use two different languages.  Bethany signs SEE, which stands for Signing Exact English.  My sister signs in ASL, the language that most deaf people in this country prefer.

Some years ago an institutionalized patient came into my care. The staff didn’t know the patient’s language was ASL. I signed, “Hi, my name is Doctor Gordon,” and the patient burst into tears. Can you imagine having no-one to talk to for decades?

The patient signed slowly, which made it easy for me to learn more. 

As the years went by, the patient’s mentation slipped more and the signing slowed.  One day, I sat down to try to reassure the patient.  I had to repeat myself a lot, but in the five short minutes we conversed, I made the transition from knowing words and phrases to having my head in the language.  Now I have a rough command of ASL, the basis from which to build.

Because I have shown my deaf patients respect by learning some of their language, and recognizing cultural differences, we have gotten along well together.  Some of them may follow me when I return to Sioux City.

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