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General NewsASL, not ESL, for immigrants

November 21, 2011

Photographer: Erika Shultz / The Seattle Times .

Highline Community College is offering hope to eight refugees from Bhutan. It started last spring as a special American Sign Language (ASL) class for deaf or hard-of-hearing immigrants. The students are learning how to sign because many people in the deaf and hearing community use it to communicate. ASL will open the door for more independence and maybe even a job one day. But it is not easy!

Being a student is a new experience for Bee and Dhan Biswakarma, two students in the ASL class. Like many with disabilities in Bhutan, they were not allowed to go to school. They did not study their own language and could not find good jobs.

Progress is slow for Bee and Dhan and the others in the ASL class. They are learning a new language. It is not the same as English. It has its own grammar and sentence structure. In class, they begin by learning basic literacy skills. Nancy Allen, the ASL instructor, teaches them to sign words such as name and family and to spell their names with their fingers.

Practicing ASL outside of class can be difficult. Bee and Dhan are not comfortable leaving their house. At home they use their own hand gestures, not ASL, with each other and their family. This is common, explains Allen. “All deaf people have a language.”

ASL classes for immigrants and refugees are rare, so Bee, Dhan and the other students are working hard to take advantage of this opportunity.

Published November 2011

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