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
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 Alex Karamanova
Communication Service for the Deaf is pleased to announce our newest international partnership initiative, the Russian-American Partnership for Children’s Literacy (RAP4CL). A CSD Neighborhood Project, RAP4CL will highlight the importance of language acquisition for deaf and hard of hearing children in the United States and Russia through the collaborative development and deployment of innovative educational resources in both countries. We’re excited to welcome our Russian partners, Ya Tebya Slyshu, a St. Petersburg-based non-profit organization that provide resources, support and advocacy for deaf and hard of hearing children and their families to kick-off the partnership this week. We’re also proud to partner with Melissa Malzkuhn and Dr. Melissa Herzig of the Visual Language and Visual Learning Center (VL2), an NSF-funded Science of Learning center on this initiative.
Phase one of RAP4CL will focus on the development of four visual storybooks created with VL2’s Storybook Creator program (learn more about these storybooks at http://vl2storybookapps.com/). The project will create an all new original storybook after a popular Russian children’s story ‘The Giant Turnip,’ with two versions planned: Russian Sign Language (RSL)/written Russian and American Sign Language (ASL)/written English. Deaf Russian artist Alexei Svetlov is creating original artwork for the Giant Turnip storybook. The remaining two storybooks will be RSL/written Russian translations of existing VL2 Storybooks ‘Baobab’ and ‘Blue Lobster.’
During Ya Tebya Slyshu’s visit to Austin, they will participate in presentations and workshops conducted by Ms. Malzkuhn and Dr. Herzig on early language exposure and its impact on the development of brain, language and cognitive development, and training on the use of the VL2 Storybook Creator program to develop visual storybooks. Together, our team will shoot film for the first storybook, the RSL/Russian version of The Giant Turnip. This November, our U.S. team will travel to St. Petersburg and Moscow for a second site visit to participate in presentations and roundtable discussions on the state of bilingual education in the United States and Russia. At the Russian team’s headquarters in St. Petersburg, a videographer from CSD’s Creative team will lead a hands-on training that will establish a Russian-based creative studio focused on the continued development of bilingual education resources to encourage language acquisition for deaf and hard of hearing children throughout Russia. Our long term vision for this initiative is to empower the broad development of high quality bilingual education resources and spark interest and recognition of the critical importance of early language acquisition for deaf and hard of hearing children in both the U.S. and Russia.
You can follow RAP4CL project activities on CSD’s social media and on our RAP4CL blog.
This project is funded by the US-Russian Social Expertise Exchange program under the Eurasia Foundation.
CSD Neighborhood > RAP4CL