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ASL as a First Language

Special Needs Adoption Family Adoption Stories Deaf China

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  Written by Heidi on 01 Jan 2006

I heard Rebekah speak her first full sentence last week- "OK, I will go do that now." After just one year, she was already speaking in full sentences. I was so proud! Under normal circumstances, this would be a milestone for a 6-year-old child who was adopted from another country, but for Rebekah, this was extraordinary.

You see, Rebekah came to me with very limited language skills due to a bilateral hearing loss. Although she did have hearing aides in China , she had not had them long. And even though her wonderful foster mother worked very well with her, there wasn't adequate deaf education in the orphanage so her language skills had not developed.

Since I knew some America Sign Language (ASL), I started using both words and signs for everything. She became a sponge! Her first day with me, she used her first sign "fish".

Our second day we went to the bathroom every 15 minutes -- she had figured out that she could use her hands to communicate what she wanted to do, and we responded! (We drank far less water on day 3, and worked on other commands like hungry.) She chattered all the time, but those on her Chinese medical team confirmed that most of this was babble, with a few words thrown in.

The first major language goal I wanted was to break her habit of squealing and pointing to get her needs met. Substituting a word, any word was the goal. Just saying "Mama" and pointing was fine for this first goal -- I did have to ignore some raised eyebrows because I wasn't insisting that she say "please". I knew that would come, but she first needed to learn that words were more effective than baby sounds. After six weeks, she had learned to command my attention using words, and she also recognized and utilized at least 100 signs.

We decided on a bilingual and bicultural approach to her education, so she has attended The Learning Center for Deaf Children in Boston since May, 2004. This program uses both ASL and English, and provides extensive speech therapy as well as ASL instruction. I knew that she would pick up the ASL, and English would follow. Her hearing-aides help her

hear sound (especially music) and language. Her eyes and hands give her the ability to understand and express herself. This removes the frustration of not understanding because of an inability to hear or the frustration of being misunderstood because she struggled to pronounce words.

With these communication skills have come growth and maturity and the emergence of a personality that is so charming, happy, nurturing, loving, and STRONG! I have been so thrilled with our ability to communicate. It gave her the chance to be a normal 6-year-old, with the ability to express her thoughts and feelings, and me the ability to have conversations with my little girl.

She continues to learn the spoken words for everything but pronunciation and grammar are difficult. It doesn't matter, her ability to communicate is the priority. Those English skills will come later.

But last week, my little Rebekah once again surpassed all my expectations. She said, grammatically correct, with her beautiful smile, "OK, I will go do that now". I do believe, she can go and do anything she wants.

Rebekah was adopted through Children's Hope International. Heidi is working on her dossier to adopt a 2-year-old waiting child through CHI. Rebekah's new sister also has a hearing impairment.




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