The art of communicating by signing
by Treva Lind | © Washington State University
Fingers flew at a rapid pace for Nancy Kikendall during the 2002-03 academic year at Gallaudet University for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C. She was among only a few hearing students accepted into the school's graduate program. The experience, she says, greatly improved her American Sign Language (ASL) skills.
"Anyone in the deaf community knows Gallaudet is the top of the top. It was an honor," said Kikendall, while relaxing at her Liberty Lake home near Spokane last November. About 98 percent of Gallaudet's 2,000 students are deaf or hard of hearing.
"Most classes are taught in sign, so you have to get better."
Abraham Lincoln approved the charter for Gallaudet in 1864 to create the comprehensive multi-purpose, higher education institution for the deaf and hearing impaired.
Kikendall was one of 10 students selected to enter the Master of Arts in Interpretation program, following a process that included a video application testing her ASL ability and a written goal statement. She credits her Washington State University education and achievement as a cum laude graduate ('02 Human Development) for playing a role in her acceptance.
After returning home last summer, Kikendall felt even more convinced of pursuing her goal to become a certified deaf interpreter. She spent three months as a freelance interpreter for the Eastern Washington Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Spokane, providing one-on-one help for deaf clients in medical appointments and in high schools.
"I help relay material the teacher is teaching," she says. "If the students have a question or want to express themselves in class, I speak for them. I'm the bridge."
She became interested in ASL when a class was offered at her Lynnwood, Washington, high school. The deaf instructor introduced an interpreter for the first class, and Kikendall thought the class would be a breeze. Then, the instructor told the students they'd no longer see an interpreter as they immersed themselves in basic sign language.
At WSU, her ASL knowledge was already more advanced than the sign language courses offered, so she became a teaching assistant in ASL I and II. Since no bachelor's degree in interpreting was offered in Washington, she decided to focus on family studies and to minor in speech and hearing.
Although Kikendall wouldn't trade her year at Gallaudet, she found it challenging being in the minority as a hearing person. The intensive class work and ASL usage, as well as 9/11 anniversary fears and the 2002 sniper attacks, took their toll.
"I'm just taking a break," Kikendall says. "I was exhausted. Gallaudet was fascinating but frustrating when I couldn't express myself as fast [as I wanted]."
Mastering ASL language syntax is more complex, which became apparent at Gallaudet.
"I felt it was time to focus more on the language of ASL, and then the concepts."
She gives an example of the English term, underwater. "There is no sign for that; you'd have to show it, such as 'WATER UNDER.' With 'close the door,' it's 'DOOR-CLOSE.' For 'the dog ran up the hill,' we'd sign, 'HILL, DOG RUN-UP.'
"It's all completely different for ASL than it is in English. Time elements come first, such as, 'TOMORROW, STORE, I-GO.' "
While at Gallaudet, Kikendall's skills improved to the point where she now feels competent at listening to someone talk, and then turning around and immediately interpreting. She'll work up to simultaneous interpreting-signing what someone is saying as they're saying it. Her long-term goal is to work in the judicial or legal field as a legal interpreter for the deaf.
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