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“Difficult Language” for who? – A reflection on Difficult Language Training, the case of Colombian Sign Language.

Peter Browning (ESRC Funded Graduate Research Student)

When I began my research into the impacts the new English language policy “Rionegro Bilingüe” was having in the rapidly urbanizing municipality of Rionegro in Colombia, I had assumed that my previous knowledge of Spanish would be enough to allow me to generate all the data I needed as I carried out my ethnographic fieldwork. However, when I began classroom observations at San Ignacio[1] school, I was met with a very particular case, which I knew I had to account for in my research and, if I was to gather good ethnographic data, would mean expanding my linguistic repertoire. In short, I found myself learning Colombian Sign Language an experience that not only enriched me and my research, but one which also allowed me to reflect on some of the different ways that a language can be considered “difficult”.

Mónica is the lead English teacher at San Ignacio, she is a key player in implementing the Rionegro Bilingüe policy which has been designed to help the students in the municipality of Rionegro learn English, widely considered as an important language for success, and one that is difficult to learn for Colombian school children. One day during an observation, after finishing class a couple of minutes early, Mónica turned to me and asked if I had been in Lina’s lessons yet. When I told her I had not, she was shocked and practically frogmarched me downstairs to Lina’s classroom. “Lina is also teaching English now, it’s a beautiful project and so great for us and our deaf students”, she told me as we walked down the stairs. We crossed the patio at pace and sidled up to the doorway of a small classroom separated from the main school building.

1 San Ignacio School, Rionegro

            We stood in the doorway and watched as Lina finish up her lesson for the day, recapping the vocabulary she had been teaching –months of the year– by pointing to a list on the board and asking students to sign back to her the correct meaning. There are only four students in the class but with the Sign language-Spanish interpreter, Carlos (who Mónica had collared on the way down the stairs to help us out–) the linguistic model, Julieta, the teacher, Lina and me not being used to the embodiment of sign language, the class felt frenetic and even with Carlos’ help interpreting it was hard to keep up.

            I spoke to Lina on this first day, and she explained to me that, although the majority of classes at the school were ‘integrados’ meaning that deaf students study alongside their hearing peers with the support of interpreters –like Carlos–, this was not the case for language classes. She explained that “en el colegio nosotros no trabajamos inglés como una área… en bachillerato cuando el grupo está en inglés, los sordos pasan a trabajar español como segunda lengua, y cuando el grupo, por ejemplo 8ºB, cuando está en español los sordos pasan a trabajar una asignatura que se llama Comunidad Sorda – la trabajan con la modelo lingüístico- ahí se fortalece: lengua de señas [colombiana]; comunidad sorda; e identidad sorda.” And she made sure to stress that, “para nosotros, es muy importante pues que ellos se fortalezcan en quiénes son; de dónde vienen; cuál es su historia; cuáles son las políticas que les apoyan… entonces el inglés nunca se ha visto y en general en el país no se ve donde hay colegios que tiene ese tipo de experiences, ¿porqué? porque el español es la segunda lengua [de los estudiantes sordos].”[2] In this interview Lina went to great lengths to ensure that I was clear about the minoritized status of Colombian Sign Language (CSL), the struggles of students who arrive at school, as she explained, “sin una lengua” –without a language– having not been able to acquire CSL at home. She stressed the need to learn Spanish as a second language and how difficult this was for students and thus the minimised importance typically given to English.

            Lina also explained to me the project she was running within the framework of the Rionegro Bilingüe policy I was researching. She had been selected as one of the adult participants in an all-expenses-paid, month-long English language immersion course in the USA to improve her own English so she could take a lead in teaching English to San Ignacio’s deaf students, including them for the first time in the Rionegro Bilingüe policy.

            San Ignacio is one of very few schools in which deaf students are “integrados” into the school community, the ethos of inclusion means that hearing students have time in their Spanish classes (only one lesson a month) dedicated to CSL and that the school, in association with the local municipality, offers free language classes in CSL for members of the community. After having spoken to Lina, I decided that if I was to better understand what learning English entailed for San Ignacio’s deaf students, I would need to join these classes; I applied to UBEL-DTP to allow to me do so within the Difficult Language Training scheme and was lucky enough to be selected.

2 Signs of the Month (clockwise from top left): September; Celebration, Peace, Deaf People; Preservation of the Ozone Layer; Love and Friendship; Literacy

            I spent the next six months attending classes at San Ignacio run by Julieta who was herself once a student at the school and is now employed as a “linguistic model” for her advanced competences in CSL. On the first day, we were each “baptized” with a sign, this would be how we would refer to each other, our “sign names” – mine is the sign for glasses combined with a hand combed over the head to signify my quiff, and learnt how to finger-spell our written names P-E-T-E-R, which in my case luckily only means remembering three signs!

            Each week we tackled a new topic: food, countries, jobs, animals, colours, physical description etc. I struggled through an immersive methodology of signs being associated with flashcards and words in Spanish (which I sometimes didn’t know!). I was lucky to have made friends with Carlos, the interpreter who helped me out after class to keep up with my peers, otherwise I would have been completely lost. I came to appreciate the difficulty of learning a signed language, the adaptation to a new modality of expression and the added complexity of filtering this through Spanish.

3 CSL Notebook

            One week towards the end of the course, we met not in our usual classroom, but rather in Rionegro’s main square to learn the signs for places in the town in a contextualised way. This was a special class, Julieta had arranged with Eva –another linguistic model who taught CSL– to combine our classes. Whilst Julieta’s classes were for hearing students interested in learning CSL, Eva’s classes were for deaf students from an older generation who never learnt standard CSL growing up. Of course, these students already sign and are able to make themselves understood, however their version of CSL is far from standard. Indeed, it is only in 2006 that the Colombian government took the “first step” to standardizing CSL through the publication of a CSL dictionary, and it is as recent as 2020 that the national language planning council for CSL was established. It became clear to me during this activity that CSL was not only a difficult language for us hearing students, but also to this older generation of deaf students who not only had to learn new signs, like us hearing students, but also had to reckon with being corrected and being told that the signs they have used for many years are “incorrect”.

            I’d set out to learn CSL in order to carry out observations of the implementation of the Rionegro Bilingüe policy with San Ignacio’s deaf students and after six months, I was ready to go it alone in Lina’s class, without the help of Carlos. In this first class, Lina began by welcoming the students, and asking me to introduce myself, which I did with my sign “glasses&quiff” and by finger-spelling my name P-E-T-E-R. She then presented a bag which had vocabulary cards in it. The first card she pulled out had the English word “curly” written on it and asks the class what it could mean. Manuela, one of the keener students, offers a guess: she finger-spells the word using Colombian sign language alphabet “C-U-R-L-Y” then signs ‘straight’, Lina corrects her signing: ‘not straight, curly’, the sequence concludes when Manuela signs “I understand, curly”. Lina pulled another card from the bag and the same process went on with the rest of the vocabulary, ‘wavy’, ‘fair’, ‘dark’, ‘blond’, this is a difficult process of students guessing and Lina correcting, reinforcing the connection between the finger­-spelling and the written form of the English words, and the translation into CSL signs. I was not exempt from this activity, Lina treated me as one of the students, testing me and my six-month’s worth of classes, she was pleased to see that I had made some progress and could (just about) keep up.

The class culminated in a ‘Guess Who’ activity.  Students took turns to play this game: each had a board with lots of different character’s faces, one of which was ‘selected’ by their opponent. The teams take it in turns to ask if the chosen person had certain physical qualities, for example: “is the person blond?” – the answer to each of these questions helping to rule out some characters and narrow down who their opponent had chosen. The game was not all that successful. I watched many crossed wires, a lot of frustration and countless mis-guesses, some students clearly unfamiliar with the game but most unable to get their partners to understand them.

When I was encouraged to play (with a lot of help from the students), two things dawned on me. Firstly, I realised that many of what I had perceived as crossed wires was actually produced by the specificity of CLS’ physicality. That is to say, the fact that to sign the equivalent of English ‘curly’ or ‘rizado’ is to already communicate a degree of curliness, a direction, a texture and a length, therefore it’s not so easy to ask a generic “do they have curly hair?”. Through my own difficulties in playing, I also realised what should have been obvious, that this game (as with many of the practice activities I had observed) wasn’t really predicated on knowing English, rather successful participation was fully dependent on CSL use as all the communication was being carried out through CSL!

I’d gone through the (difficult) process of learning Colombian Sign Language in order to understand something about the experience of deaf students at San Ignacio school learning English. What I’d seen in my observations was that in these classes, a lot of emphasis was placed not only on English, but also on (further) developing the students’ CSL skills. Lina’s project appears to be one which creates opportunities to attend to the fact that the deaf students often arrive at the school “sin una lengua” –without a language­–, and to further the dissemination of standard CSL within this young generation of CSL users. It seems to me that the Rionegro Bilingüe policy at San Ignacio school takes on an additional meaning to simply improving English, its meaning shifts in response to the specificity of the situation. Similarly, throughout this whole experience, different people, in different situations gave different meanings to very notion of  “difficult language”.

4 CSL Class (image blurred to protect participant anonymity)

[1] Pseudonyms and other techniques have been used throughout to protect participant anonymity

[2] In the school, we have English as a specific area… in bachillerato, when the year group is in English class, the deaf students come to study Spanish as a second language, and when the year group, for example 8B, when they are in Spanish lessons, the deaf students come to study a subject called “Deaf Community” with the linguistic model. In this subject they strengthen: [Colombian] Sign Language; Deaf Community; and Deaf Identity. And she makes sure to stress that, “for us, it’s very important that they [the deaf students] learn lots about who they are, where they come from, what is their history, what are the policies that support them… so they have never really studied English and generally in Colombia there aren’t other schools that that have had this kind of experience, why? Because Spanish is the second language [of the deaf students].

By UBEL Doctoral Training Partnership

The UCL, Bloomsbury and East London Doctoral Training Partnership is an ESRC-funded organisation which brings together five leading Social Science institutions.