By Bobby Siebert The Russian-American Project for Children’s Literacy (RAP4CL) exchange project requires communication across four languages: American Sign Language, Russian Sign Language, English, and Russian. It is little wonder that the most commonly asked question about this project is something like ‘how does communication work?’ A fair question, especially when considering the complexity of our project’s topic content. It’s difficult enough to discuss the cognitive benefits of bilingual education and the backing research with someone fluent in your native language, let alone in a roundtable consisting of individuals natively fluent in four different languages. There is no doubt that we have faced communication challenges throughout the project. But, we would probably have had a far more difficult time if not for the incredible Deaf friends we’ve made throughout this project, especially Vera Shamaeva in St. Petersburg, and Genady Tikhenko of Moscow. Both bright and driven individuals, Vera and Gena have the extraordinary ability to pick up a new language effortlessly, as if their brains were sponges sopping up excess water. Attaining conversational language competency would take most people months, or even years, but Vera and Gena reached it in days. Their ability to switch from RSL to International Sign to ASL were instrumental in facilitating effective communication between our parties.
Beyond translation, Vera and Gena also took on the roles of proud ambassadors of their homeland. They shared their thoughts on the best and most challenging aspects of their country from the eyes of native Deaf Russians. As a Deaf American who has greatly benefitted from the Americans with Disabilities Act and access to interpreters and communication, it jarred me to the core to learn about the dearth of RSL interpreters in Russia. There used to be 5,000 RSL interpreters in Russia thirty years ago, Gena said; there are only an estimated 1,000 today. Despite lacking access to interpreters throughout their academic careers, both Vera and Gena received advanced degrees. I was amazed; they simply shrugged. They found ways to absorb educational content, relying heavily on reading materials and notetaking. If they were asked a question in class, a hearing student would write down the question for them to read. And then they would write their responses for the hearing student to relay it back to the professor and the rest of the class. Through persistence and determination, both remarkable individuals succeeded.
Through Vera and Gena, we were introduced to the All-Russia Society for the Deaf (VOG, as spelled in the Russian language), the equivalent to the United States’ National Association of the Deaf. Vera shared the history of the St. Petersburg VOG chapter, housed in a beautiful historic building facing the English Embankment that was once the residence of the brother of Nikolay II, the final tsar of the Romanovs, the famous lineage that concluded in 1918. Officially, the St. Petersburg VOG chapter has over 3,400 members. The most striking room in the building was the 150-seat theatre, a scene lifted out of the early 20th century, adorned with pillars and sculptures. The theater is still in use; only a few days before our visit, VOG had hosted a stage play and workshops. The national VOG office, overseeing 82 affiliations across Russia, is in the heart of Moscow. Their programs oversee a wide range of issues impacting the Deaf community: telecommunications, education, employment, as well as archive and media departments. Gennady introduced us to Dimitry Zhevzhikov, an artist of extraordinary talent sculpting stone and marble who also is an active leader of the Association of Deaf Russian Artists, a group of diversely-talented artists across different artistic disciplines from all corners of Russia. We also met Viktor Palenniy, a historian and documenter who leads VOG’s archive department. In the archive room, we observed a large bookshelf stocked with books, published by VOG, on the history of the Russian Deaf community—with some of the content even summarized and translated into English (which was immensely useful in gaining a better understanding of the Russian Deaf community’s history and for writing our blog articles). The value the Russian Deaf community places on the arts, culture, and history echoes that of the U.S. Deaf community. I participated and attended stage plays at my Deaf school and the local Deaf club. Growing up, I learned about the history of my Deaf community, from the story of how Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc gave birth to Deaf education in America to the famous Deaf President Now protest at Gallaudet University. Chuck Baird and other artists of the Deaf View/Image Art (De’VIA) movement remain heroes and visionaries from my childhood. Art, culture, and history are critical components of any strong, proud, and flourishing community, and the Deaf community is no different. Though this exchange grew out of a common interest in bilingual education, I come away having learned so much more. There is an opportunity to transcend this exchange between our communities—one through which we share the best of our communities, in how we express our culture through art and storytelling, build stronger social cohesion through cultural events such as stage plays, and better preserve our communities’ storied histories. Together with our Russian friends, we can build a stronger community and culture for the global Deaf community.
By Bobby Siebert
Early Intervention Institute in St. Petersburg
In a cozy building a few blocks from Nevsky Prospekt in snowy St. Petersburg, CSD and its Russian partner Ya Tebya Slyshu hosted a roundtable discussion on the topic of bilingual education for Deaf children. Gathered around the table were various professionals, including a speech therapist, a teacher specializing in special education, and a specialist working with people with disabilities. Several people at the table were parents of Deaf children themselves, all with deep, steadfast opinions on how to raise and educate a Deaf child.
At the heart of our discussion was the hotly contested debate between the oral approach and education in sign language. We’ve seen this debate in the United States; it was fascinating and heart-wrenching to see the same arguments mirrored in spoken Russian, by parents and professionals grappling with the same issues and struggles halfway around the world. Cochlear implantation is the norm in Russia; the oral method is the dominant approach in Deaf education and acquiring fluent speaking skills is the overarching goal for Deaf children. “So much time and money is invested in the cochlear implantation process,” one parent said. “Learning sign language is counterproductive to the child learning to speak.”
It is easy to think that this educational pathway for Deaf children is the only one, and it’s why I was grateful to be here sharing my experience. Views are meant to be challenged and invigorated by new data and knowledge, it’s why cultural and knowledge exchanges like this are so important. As a Deaf man born to Deaf parents who was taught American Sign Language from birth, I am evidence that there can be more than one successful method of raising and educating a Deaf child.
Back in September, during Ya Tebya Slyshu’s visit to Austin, we learned a great deal from Dr. Melissa Herzig and Melissa Malzkuhn, esteemed professionals in Deaf education from the Visual Language and Visual Learning Center in Washington, D.C. We learned that the brain processes spoken and signed languages the same way—(renowned neuroscientist Dr. Laura Ann Pettito: “The brain doesn’t discriminate, people do.” The brain learns language by recognizing lingusitic patterns, whether visual or auditory. By age five, a child’s brain is 85-90% developed. That brief span of five years is critical for a child to acquire the foundations of language. Yesterday, we heard the familiar refrain “we must try spoken language first, and if it doesn’t succeed, the Deaf child can always learn to sign later”. Through deep learning research, we now recognize this way of thinking poses a risk— by the time it’s evident the oral method has failed a Deaf child, it’s already too late. The child, now entering the first year of school, having grown up without language or communication will be forced to play catch up, frantically stuffing language input into a rapidly closing window.
I attended a conference on bilingual education legislation recently, and heard a wonderful story from a hearing father of a Deaf daughter. When he and his wife found out their daughter was Deaf, they were dazed. Professionals and specialists piled on information and options on how to raise and educate their daughter. The sheer amount of information was overwhelming. One day the man and his wife were at a restaurant. The waiter came up and asked ‘Do you want soup or salad?’ The man sat and thought about it, and then said ‘yes.’ The waiter was confused. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Do you want soup or salad?’ The man said ‘yes’ again.
And then it hit him—he and his wife didn’t have to pick just one option for their daughter. They would give their daughter everything and ensure she had all the resources and support to succeed.
When emerging research indicates that learning sign language does not interfere with—and potentially helps—learning speech, why would we not want to give every Deaf child both sign language and speech education? We should say ‘yes’ or ‘da’ to both!
At the roundtable, we shared our views that sign language is a viable education option and can coexist with speech education. Advances in technology have only supported this claim. We brought out iPads and showed them ‘The Giant Turnip,’ our visual storybook presented in Russian Sign Language (RSL) and written & spoken Russian. Their faces lit up as they saw a familiar traditional Russian fairy tale told in an all-new way, bridging both languages via signed videos and accompanying text. They swiped pages, played the videos of Vera signing in RSL, and clicked on words to see them signed and fingerspelled.
It was a beautiful feeling to share this innovative resource, the product of months of work and collaboration between CSD, Ya Tebya Slyshu, and Melissa Malzkuhn and Dr. Melissa Herzig, with our Russian friends.
And an even better feeling emerged, to have participated in this exchange of knowledge and culture, to broaden views on both sides, and to share in our mutual passion of creating better futures for Deaf children in the U.S., Russia, and everywhere in the world. It was a brief three-hour discussion, but the impact may be felt for a long time afterwards.
Perhaps the next time we find ourselves in a restaurant, we’ll decide to order both the soup and salad, and give our Deaf children everything.
By Bobby Siebert
Our final full day went by in a blur as we worked with our Russian partners Alla and Zoya of Ya Tebya Slyshu and the Russian signer Vera to film the glossary words in the story ‘The Giant Turnip.’ With over seventy words to film, we were in the studio quite a while, capturing every word in the method established by the VL2 storybooks: signing the word and then fingerspelling it, and signing it once more. Eventually, we wrapped up filming and thanked Vera for her hard work and patience in the studio, signing every scene and most of the words multiple times to make sure we got the best take.
With filming wrapped up, we bid farewell. We thanked Alla, Zoya, and Vera for making the long trip and participating wholeheartedly and enthusiastically in our various exchange activities. For their part, Alla and Zoya were thankful for the experience, especially for the research-based information they learned from the VL2 presentation on the cognitive benefits of bilingual education. They hope to bring what they’ve learned over to their communities in Saint Petersburg and Russia.
Next, we look forward to our CSD team’s trip to Russia from November 5 to 14. We’ll visit Saint Petersburg and Moscow and participate in another round of exchange activities, including a roundtable discussion on bilingual education involving educational and medical professionals working with deaf and hard of hearing children in Saint Petersburg, a presentation on the early intervention system in Russia, and filming of the RSL/Russian versions of two current VL2 storybooks, ‘Baobab’ and ‘Blue Lobster.’
We’ll be posting more during our Russia visit—be sure to check back for more updates!
By Bobby Siebert
We began day two with a video call to Alexei Svetlov, the Russian-born deaf artist responsible for creating original artwork for our storybook, ‘The Giant Turnip,’ based on original Russian folklore. Alexei remembers reading ‘The Giant Turnip’ as a child, and it holds a special place in his heart. He is an accomplished artist, and we are honored to have him contributing his art to our project.
Next, we wrapped up the workshops and presentations by our VL2 partners, Dr. Melissa Herzig and Melissa Malzkuhn. Yesterday, the VL2 Storybook Creator looked daunting—a wall of code can do that to you. Fortunately, we had the talented and steady hand of Melissa Malzkuhn to guide us through, and the program proved to be much simpler than it looks. The majority of the Storybook app is ‘pre-coded,’ with most of the essential structure of the app—the framework—already built, leaving us to fill in preset gaps with new text and files of our videos and images. In a way, the Creator program is essentially a more modern, technological version of ‘paint-by-numbers.’ Before we knew it, we were adding new pages, putting in our own text, inserting sentence videos and glossary word videos.
We bid our VL2 partners farewell after lunch, and then dove into the actual filming of the storybook! For the last half of day two and most of day three, we worked in the studio, filming the RSL/Russian version of the original Russian folklore story, ‘The Giant Turnip.’ Considering that we were working off a Russian/English script and conversing in a mish-mash of Russian Sign Language, American Sign Language, and International Sign, the effectiveness of our communication was remarkable. In one and a half days, we completed filming the Watch and Read modes of the storybook, all 18 pages of it.
Tomorrow, we’ll work on the ‘Learn’ mode of the storybook—we have over 75 Russian vocabulary words to film. We can’t wait to share the storybooks with you!
By Bobby Siebert
The RAP4CL team looks on as Dr. Herzig presents on the cognitive benefits of bilingual education.
For the first day of our Russian partners’ U.S. visit, we took a tour of the CSD headquarters where they got the chance to meet our majority-deaf admin staff, and then settled in the Benjamin J. Soukup conference room to begin a workshop by our Visual Language and Visual Learning Center (VL2) partners from Gallaudet University, Dr. Melissa Herzig and Melissa Malzkuhn. With the support of enthusiastic interpreters, we proceeded for a full day of information and knowledge exchange via four languages—American Sign Language (ASL), Russian Sign Language (RSL), English, and Russian.
Citing research from Dr. Laura Ann Petitto, neuroscientist and scientific director of VL2, Dr. Herzig explained that visual phonology (ASL) and sound phonology (spoken English) activate the identical brain tissue, meaning that the brain acquires language through patterns, which can be found in both signed and spoken languages.
For deaf and hearing children alike, early language exposure plays a crucial role in language development, leading to better eye gaze and joint attention, stronger vocabulary, and literacy development. Milestones for a child to acquire language, marking the appropriate age for children to begin babbling and express certain amounts of words, were found to be the same for ASL and spoken English. Contrary to popular belief, early bilingual exposure does not hinder the development of speech, and Dr. Herzig emphasized the importance of exposure to sign language at an early age. In one study, deaf signers who acquired ASL early were able to read complex English sentences more quickly and respond to associated questions more accurately than those who acquired ASL later in life.
Dr. Herzig also presented various approaches in using sign language to improve literacy skills and bridging both languages, ASL and English. Studies show fingerspelling skills positively correlate with stronger reading skills. Fingerspelling, reading, and writing are interrelated, and early exposure to fingerspelling helps children become better readers. To help build the connections between signed words and fingerspelled words, one can point at an object, a person and printed words and then fingerspelling its name. This will support a child’s literacy development.
The VL2 Storybook App was built on this wealth of research knowledge. It has three modes: Watch, Read, and Learn. In the Watch mode, the entire story is presented via ASL. In Read mode children can watch ASL videos and read English, for a self-directed reading experience supplemented by visuals—if a child does not know a certain word, they can touch that word and a video in a box pops up, signing and fingerspelling that word. And then in the Learn mode, children build up their vocabulary through a glossary of words that are presented via chaining method, in which the word is signed, fingerspelled, and then signed again.
To wrap up the day, we began learning how to use VL2’s Creator program, which provides a convenient platform to create new bilingual and visual storybooks. VL2’s Storybook library currently includes Norwegian and Japanese books in addition to ASL books, and we can’t wait to add Russian books to their virtual shelf. The Creator program looked complicated with its lines of code, but Melissa Malzkuhn showed us how we could alter it to create a customized book of our own.
“Combining visual stories and the touch screen tablet—a revolutionary learning tool— we can make magic,” Malzkuhn said.
With day one wrapped up, we look forward to learning more about the Creator app and start filming our Russian signer in the studio in day two!
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