forum SignWriting List Forum
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From:  "J. Albert Bickford"
Date:  Wed Dec 9, 1998  11:02 pm

Valerie Sutton wrote:
>And judging from our experiences so far, SignWriting may actually help Deaf
>kids learn to read English words faster. That is why we started the
>SignWriting Literacy Project - to study this issue to see if this is true.
>I would think that having a written form for both languages can be useful
>in a bilingual, bicultural setting.
>It is my guess that people learn their second language faster, if they have
>a written form for it, and the reverse is true too...people learn their
>second language faster, if their NATIVE language has a written form.
>Perhaps this is because both languages need an equal foundation so that the
>learner can compare both languages equally.

(I'm not an expert on this; there are literacy experts who know this issue a
lot better than I do. And, also, I'm speaking from the perspective of
literacy and bilingual education among smaller languages in other countries,
such as the indigenous ("indian") languages in Latin America. So please read
my comments with those things in mind. Still, I suspect that sharing some
things from that perspective may be helpful.)

Often, children in minority language groups have been taught to read in the
national language (for example Spanish) without knowing how to speak it. The
result: they learned that reading is a meaningless exercise, pronouncing
words that they didn't understand. It is something that you have to suffer
through in school, but who ever would want to use it afterward? In one
Indian language in Mexico, the word for reading literally means "talk to
paper"--it is NOT, notice, "paper talks to me".

What I've heard my colleagues say is that people learn to read only
once--the first time. That is, the first time they learn to read is when
they learn what reading is, that it involves communication by means of
symbols on paper (or on a computer screen), that these symbols represent
words in a language, and that reading is something worth doing. These things
are much easier to learn when you also know the language that you're
reading, so that reading is real communication. If you have to learn to read
in a language that you don't understand, you have to be learning two things
at once: the language itself as well as how to read. No wonder it's hard
that way! So, good teaching practice breaks the process down into two
separate steps: first learn to read (in a language you already know), then
use that skill to help you learn another language. This approach has proven
very successful in many countries.

If Deaf people have similar experiences in trying to learn English, I
suspect it is for similar reasons. And, learning to read ASL first should
make it easier to learn to read English, not harder. But even if it doesn't,
the ability to read and write in one's own language is a very precious
privilege that is not available to people in the majority of the world's
languages. I'm glad that it is now becoming available to users of signed

Albert Bickford
Tucson AZ

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