- The Washington Times - Monday, January 21, 2002

Susan Gershowitz talks with her hands. She teaches American Sign Language to about 80 hearing high school students at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, Md. and at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, Md. She also teaches night classes at her home for the general public.
"I feel like I prepare the students to communicate with any deaf person they meet," she says.
American Sign Language is the language used by most deaf people in the United States and Canada. It incorporates signs made with the hands and other movements, including facial expressions and body postures. Although it is popular in the United States, many forms of sign language exist throughout the world.
Mrs. Gershowitz has used American Sign Language since about age 18. She has enlarged vestibular aqueduct syndrome, which means the channel connecting the inner ear and cranial space has become larger than normal, causing hearing loss.
"A hearing loss was first detected when I was 7 from a school hearing test," the Rockville resident says. "My hearing deteriorated until I lost all my hearing completely I speak [verbally] because I heard speech for so many years and then wore two hearing aids after becoming deaf. So I have always been able to at least hear my own voice to monitor it. Why I still speak so well is really a mystery."
Eventhough Mrs. Gershowitz speaks English without reservation, she says it is different from American Sign Language, which has its own grammar and syntax.
"In English you would say, 'The book is on the chair,'" she says. "In American Sign Language, you would say, 'Book chair on.' In English, the voice goes up for questions. In American Sign Language, it's all done with the eyebrows."
Pidgin Sign English is used to communicate with people who aren't familiar with the grammar of American Sign Language, Mrs. Gershowitz says. Since it uses English word order, she uses the method to teach her students American Sign Language vocabulary.
"It's half English and half American Sign Language," she says. "It makes contact with both languages."

Each year, Mrs. Gershowitz's high school students present a show called "Music In Motion" to try to make music relevant to the deaf community. Her students are learning to dance and sign the lyrics to about 29 songs, such as "Help" by the Beatles. This year's event is scheduled for 7 p.m. on May 24 at Quince Orchard High School.
"When I was hearing, I was a dancer and played the piano," Mrs. Gershowitz says. "That's why I do 'Music in Motion.' Many people who are deaf don't understand what music is about."
Aaron Gershowitz, Mrs. Gershowitz's 17-year-old hearing son, plans to participate in the show. He takes his mother's class at Wootton High School to hone his sign language skills. He grew up around both American Sign Language and English.
"I wasn't fluent [in American Sign Language]," the high school senior says. "I could only speak it partially. I wanted to learn to better communicate. Even where I work, at Giant in the pharmacy, we have a lot of deaf people who come in that can't speak English."
Lauren Grossman, a student of Mrs. Gershowitz's at Wootton, tutors at Score, an educational center in Gaithersburg. Some deaf children attend the program because Miss Grossman knows sign language.
"A deaf kid came in, and we were signing," the 17-year-old senior from North Potomac says. "I was signing with his dad for like 10 minutes before we realized we were both hearing. He thought I was deaf. The ultimate compliment is for a deaf person to ask a hearing person if they are deaf."
Kimberly Bedell, 17, of North Potomac, says learning sign language with Mrs. Gershowitz at Wootton has given her a better outlook on the world.
"Like when you walk into a mall, you suddenly realize how many people are deaf," the high school senior says. "You might not have realized before."
Kristi Sherman of Potomac says Mrs. Gershowitz's class at Wootton helped her decide what career to pursue.
"I'd like to be an interpreter or a teacher for the deaf," the 17-year-old senior says.
Dan Shea, principal of Quince Orchard High School, says he views signing as an employable skill.
"It's a great class," he says. "Interestingly enough, it attracts a lot of future teachers. My own daughter took it when she was here. She's at Towson University now as an education major. I think it will help her as she looks for employment."
Although Mrs. Gershowitz's class emphasizes American Sign Language, different sign languages are used in different countries. Leslie C. Greer, president of the American Sign Language Teachers Association in Silver Spring, says sign languages around the world evolve in the same way as spoken languages, through sharing among people.
"[Languages] develop through distinct language and cultural communities," Ms. Greer says.
American Sign Language differs from British Sign Language in that British Sign Language uses two hands for finger spelling, while American Sign Language uses one hand, she says. Finger spelling is used to spell each letter in a word, instead of using a single sign for the word.
French Sign Language influenced American Sign Language due to the work of Laurent Clerc, a deaf Frenchmen brought to the United States by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, an American educator of the deaf. In 1817, Mr. Clerc helped to found the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Conn. It was the first school for the deaf in the United States.
"The French Sign Language of Mr. Clerc mixed with the sign language that was indigenous to the United States," Ms. Greer says. "The combination became what we now know as modern American Sign Language."
Jean M. Gordon, assessment specialist and evaluator at the Center for American Sign Language Literacy at Gallaudet University in Northeast, says that when she spent time in Thailand she used Thai Sign Language instead of American Sign Language. She traveled there on a teaching fellowship for three months in 1999 and two months in 2000.
"It was a challenge for me," she says. "They had a variety of facial expressions. Their culture is different. When finger spelling, they use 72 different letters, when we only have 26 different letters. And I didn't have signs for their kinds of foods."
Judith Cooper, language research coordinator at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in Bethesda, says American researchers have been documenting the birth of sign language in remote areas of Nicaragua and Japan. Ms. Cooper holds a doctorate in speech and hearing sciences.
"In communities with a particularly high incidence of deaf individuals clustered together, they didn't have a means of communicating," she says. "So they formed their own language. With each cluster of individuals exposed to the language, it develops further."
Ms. Cooper is hopeful that research will continue to help the deaf and hearing communities learn more about each other. She is excited about technological advances that could assist hearing and deaf people in communication.
"One day through technology as a hearing person, I could sit down with my voice and communicate with a deaf person who uses sign language," she says. "Or we could take signing and convert it into spoken words."
These advancements could bridge the gap between the hearing and deaf worlds, she says.
"Most hearing people don't use or understand sign language," Ms. Cooper says. "We are cut off from communicating with them. I hope research can remedy that situation in the future. There is still a lot we need to learn about sign language."
For more information on Susan Gershowitz's classes, contact her at [email protected]

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