Entering summer always causes me to reflect on the “goods” and “bads” of the last school year, the tweaking for next year phase. What have we done well? What bombed? Favorite subjects? This year the chips fell happily and heavily on the side of sign language. Everyone from the two-year-old to Daddy found this new form of communication fulfilling. We ventured to learn something that, in our home and daily life, is not necessary. None of us is deaf. We don’t have deaf family members. In fact, we only know one deaf person. Why, then, was it such a hit? I think the answer touches on something that is at the very heart of homeschooling in general.
Home educators are outside the box kind of people. We want to enlighten our children, broaden their minds, expand their paths with as much extraordinary as we can. We cover the basics, yes, but that is not where our passions lie. We don’t thrive on grammar and algebra. We are robotics and missionary studies and cake decorating. The unusual is our usual. Yeah, let them learn Spanish or French or (in our case) German but throw in some Swahili. You never know when they will find themselves in the middle of the Serengeti next to a Range Rover that is fresh out of petrol. Sign language is stupendous enough to fit beautifully into this penchant for form over function. Truly, though, sign language is a symmetry of form and function. It is a physical expression of the harmony between peanut butter and jelly. It is the brogue of a jet engine, a beautiful feat of physics whose function is profoundly expressed in its form. Sign language isn’t a dialect within a language. It is singular, an entity apart from other languages. You can’t express “ya’ll” or “pahk the cah in the cah pahk” with your hands. It is pure. Signing has no need of decoration or peppering with slang and buzz words.
Additionally, sign language is an expression of the desire for outreach that is at the essence of home education. We open to our children and ourselves an entire segment of our population that would otherwise be difficult to reach if not unreachable. Speaking with my deaf friend recently, I realized the “secret society” feeling I got from knowing that only a couple other people in the building could know what we were saying to each other. We were closed off from an entire room of people but were able to enjoy each other’s company. This conversation magnified for me the desire, the need, to learn to communicate better with her. The setting was a large public venue with nearly one thousand people and multiple singing performances and speeches. She didn’t know that one singer was wonderful with a deep, bluesy voice, one speaker was talking through his nose, and the cheering was so loud that I wanted to leave the room. She didn’t know – until I was able to tell her. That bridge is a special structure. It’s the connecting of worlds that only pass in orbit occasionally and usually in a clunky, painful way. I was able to give her a deeper connection to the performances. She gave me a deeper understanding of how much I can help.
After the event was over I had the overwhelming urge to make sure she got to her car safely and to see that everything was okay for her. I couldn’t help thinking about what might happen if she was hurt and could not tell anyone. How can she know if a car is racing toward her if she can’t hear the engine? I felt desperate to be there just in case. This was all the urging I needed to continue teaching sign language to myself and my children. There is a need for more hearing people to become bridges to the deaf. So many reasons. So much need.
If revealing the world to our children is our goal, then sign language deserves top billing in the curriculum list. Beyond the obvious benefits, sign language is character building (a tool without compare to instill compassion). Sign language is coordination building. Sign language is logic building. Sign language boosts a toddler’s grasp of word meanings. Sign language has no age limits. It is a class that can be simultaneously taught to everyone in the family. Just to gild the lily, many universities and colleges are now accepting sign language as foreign language credits for entrance requirements. Obviously, this varies widely but it’s easy enough to check on and well worth the effort.
The difficulty with sign language is finding a downside to learning it ourselves and teaching it to our children. It’s not a case of the benefits slightly outweighing the risk. They aren’t even fighting in the same weight class. Even if you never become fluent or you never meet a deaf person with whom you can use your skills, you have broadened your mind and come to the realization that sometimes we do things just because someone else needs us to do them. It is a manifestation of a servant’s heart.
Beatrice Scalf is a freelance writer from Nashville. She has an amazing, supportive husband and three wonderful children. She is currently writing her first curriculum and a collection of short stories.
Reprinted with permission from Home Educating Family Magazine 2011 Issue 2
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