Oct 05, 2015

From American Sign Language to Gebärdensprache

By Jennifer Lu

Fulbright Alumna, English Language Teaching Assistant 2014/2015

My Fulbright experience working at a deaf school in Germany

"It was cold. Froggy looked out of the window. 'Snow! Snow!' he sang. 'I want to play in the snow!'" I sat in front of ten pairs of eager eyes that were tracing the movements of my hands, my lips, and facial expressions that followed the intonation of my signs. "What do you think happens next?" I asked them. Hands shot up in the air and then a student, Emma, responded. She said with her hands, "the froggy will go out and play. He will put on a thick jacket and hat!" Her signs were a blend of two different languages indicating that she has not yet mastered American Sign Language, although she is a native German Sign Language signer. I was reading a book in American Sign Language (ASL) to German fourth graders in an ASL/English bilingual class and the theme was "winter."

As a Fulbright English teaching assistant (ETA) in Germany, I worked at a bilingual school for the deaf where teachers and students sign in DGS (Deutsche Gebärdensprache/ German Sign Language) and speak and write in German. Unlike in the United States, where deaf education started and emerged with ASL as the primary language in schools, Germany’s educational system for the deaf has a particularly strong oral tradition. This oral approach dictates that deaf children should learn through speaking only and that sign language should be discouraged. However, this particular school breaks away from this convention by moving towards the bilingual oral and sign language philosophy.

Usually Fulbright ETAs are placed in schools all over Germany by the Pädagogischer Austauschdienst (PAD), an organization under the German government that promotes international exchange within the education sector. PAD and Fulbright were enthusiastic about establishing a new relationship with Elbschule, a Bildungszentrum Hören und Kommunikation (Education Center for Hearing and Communication). My tremendous experience teaching at this school, immersing myself in the German Deaf community, and learning German and DGS would not be possible without the Fulbright program and PAD. Integral to my Fulbright experience, I also received the opportunity to network and meet other Fulbright ETAs and researchers from all over Europe. As Fulbright has seldom worked with deaf grantees in Germany, the German Fulbright Commission was open to learning about how to advocate and accommodate me at the orientation as well as the mid-year Berlin Seminar by providing sign language interpreters for communication access. I was able to fully participate in such stimulating academic and intellectual conversations, spanning from U.S. vs. German education systems, migration in Germany, inclusion, to international politics and sciences. I was also delighted to have the opportunity to share with my peers my unique Fulbright experience.

I'm standing at the waterfront in Jungfernsteig in Hamburg. It's one of the most gorgeous parts of the city and is a shopping city for locals and tourists alike.

I received the opportunity to live and work in Hamburg. Hamburg is an ancient Hanseatic city, the second largest in Germany, seated all the way north and tucked under Denmark. The city expanded by the river Elbe, which contains one of the largest ports of all Europe, making this a historically important trading city. Still today, large container ships come into the Hafen, the harbor which is often referred to as the "Gateway to the World." Also, old-money wealth that traces back to the traders flows through the city’s pristine buildings and several-generation-owned Klinker-style houses – brick expressionist houses that define Hamburg’s hanseatic character.

Albeit being located in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Hamburg, the demographics of Elbschule do not reflect the typical demographics of local schools that surround it. A vast percentage of students comes from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds including Poland, Turkey, Kazakhstan, and many Eastern European countries. In addition to their diverse backgrounds, many children are severely deprived of language. Less than 5% of deaf children are typically born to deaf parents, which means that they are not exposed to sign language from birth. Consequently, many children come to school with very little language, perhaps a set of home signs - gestures that their parents use at home - and very limited German. Teachers at Elbschule face the enormous responsibility of exposing their students to as much language as possible within the 7-hour window of time, while also teaching them arithmetic, history, sciences, and basic world knowledge.

I did many cycling tours all over northern German in cities close to Hamburg. This was photographed in Lüneburg a beautiful hanseatic city 45 km southeast of Hamburg.

Despite the differences in our education and language backgrounds, the students and I bond due to our cultural similarities. Just like storytelling and sharing jokes is central to American Deaf culture, it is also a huge part of German Deaf culture. In the hallway or classroom, we often exchange personal anecdotes and jokes. Sometimes as I listen to them, I catch myself contemplating how eloquently they can convey their thoughts and emotions, despite all odds, and how happy I am to be able to sign their language to understand them.

It took me a while to get this point, though, as I came to Hamburg with literally no knowledge of DGS and very little German. However, as I immersed myself in the surrounding Deaf community in Hamburg through local DGS Stammtisch (table), events, and many dinners with my neighbors, I eventually acquired fluency in DGS and reading and writing competency in German. Learning a minority language in Germany, especially, has allowed me to better understand the political and cultural struggles of the Deaf community in this country and also deeply appreciate their Zusammengehörigkeitsgefühl, literally translated as "shared identity" or "feeling of solidarity" that is rarely found elsewhere.

In the academic year 2014-2015, Jennifer Lu was a Fulbright English teaching assistant at Elbschule in Hamburg and worked at a bilingual German and German Sign Language school. Jennifer holds a Bachelor degree in Psychology from Wellesley College and worked in London as a Research Fellow at University College London prior to the Fulbright year. She is now a first-year PhD student in Psychology at the University of Chicago doing research on spoken and sign language development in children.

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