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Since I last wrote, Anna walked across the room. She started saying head, eye, open, all done, bye bye, see?, apple, shoes, and, sometimes, it sounds like she says, oh shit when she takes something into her hands. We are seeing that she’s more in-tune than her language delay often implies. You have to watch closely to see that she’s paying attention. If you give her grapes cut in half with the in-tact, globular side facing up (to trick her), she turns it over to see if it’s been cut or not, and finding that it has been, she throws it across the room. She registers humor immediately, breaking into a four-tooth grin, or pushing her lips up to her nose to make her signature duck face. She sings when music comes on, she knows the verses of “Open, Shut Them,” and “Round and Round the Garden”, and she puts her hands in the right positions for all the finger-plays we sing.
We are finding that even though we aren’t giving Anna much sign language, she picks it up immediately. I rarely sign to her. Luke mostly does it because he gets a kick out of it. Her best signs are dad with a thumb stuck to her forehead and “DAH!!” accompanying it, and chicken, an index finger pushing on the opposite palm, while emitting a “buck-buck-buck.” For fish, she swims her little fingers upwards, pressed together, like a fin pushing through water. We are so proud of her, and I love to watch sign language take its own shape in her hands. But there is also always ambivalence here, and some secrecy.
We know that with a deficit in speech, now is the time to give her all the tools to learn that hearing is connected to meaning is connected to making words. As opposed to sign language, which is outwardly very demonstrative, much more simple to understand, and can be learned fluently with work and time at any point in one’s development, spoken language is harder than the average hearing person ever considers. How many individual sounds, how many intonations, how many mouth shapes, how many implications are bundled into the single said-aloud word! As I am teaching Zaley how to read, I see how much needs explaining: that letters together make words, that the words on the paper are the same words she already uses, that letters take on different sounds depending on their neighbors. It seems the higher-level concepts do not give us the most trouble (the other night, Zaley used the word literally in context), it is the fundamentals, the elemental structures of the way we speak and interact that, when shifted, created the most noticeable shockwaves in our lives.
In my head, I still play the “what if Anna was hearing game.” Not because I wish she was, but because it is the first way I learned how to make parenting choices. I asked our kind and accomodating auditory-verbal therapist, Joanna, who used to teach sign language in the home, isn’t withholding sign language from your deaf child like taking all the books away from an avid reader and forcing them to do math?
No is the answer. No is the answer because modalities of language are different than learning disabilities. This is the chance for me to close the gap that might mean a life-long learning disability for Anna in speech and in listening. There is a window for listening and spoken language that opens early and closes early. I picture this like my favorite times of day: pre-dawn, when the quiet blackness of the house transforms it into a different place entirely; and pre-dusk, just as the world is turning blue with tinges of light. This is how I imagine Anna’s years right now. Repeated words coming out our chimney and windows, like the streaks of colors the fairies in Sleeping Beauty shoot from their wands. (Sorry you were born to a language junky and literature major, Anna!) There go our words: Dog! Up! Thank you! Here you go! Weeee! No, no! Yes please!
But you can’t see our words because we are saying them, not signing them. Having a deaf child and not giving her sign language is still the least digestible peculiarity of having Anna. Turning away from my own child’s strength–and an established culture, the Deaf culture–to make her more a part of my world, the world of privilege and power, feels almost like an abuse of privilege and power. Because Anna is my child and because her successes seem like harder-earned victories than a typical child’s achievements, it is still–a year-and-a-half into this story–with resignation, not certainty, that I curb my impulse to teach her all the signs I love: octopus, caterpillar, coffee, love, sick, learn. These are a tiny sliver of the signs that portray more than spoken words do. You can see them (octopus tentacles wiggling under a round head), they move (slinking up the arm), they act (the grinding, spiral motion of an old-school coffee maker), they mimic (a kiss, a pressure on the head and the core, a drawing up of wisdom into the brain), they are as close as the body can get to a tangible experience as going through the experiene itself.
I do believe that waiting to teach Anna ASL till she can speak will be better for her than trying to teach her a language we are not, ourselves, fluent in. I do believe in our spoken language therapists, in the studies that show deaf children achieving higher gains in mainstream schools–where they are held to the same linguistic standards as hearing children, which means, surrounding them with a complex, fluent language from the very beginning.
But when a deaf college student sat on my couch last week, signing fluently, speaking perfectly, showing me the same cochlear implants as my Anna wears, when she explained how her parents, grandma, and sister learned sign language right away and it was used all the time in their home, I knew that the home I’ve always wanted to build for my children is not one with pretty linens and framed art–though I love buying both–but one furnished with multiple languages.
In an essay for The New Yorker, Jumpa Lahiri writes, “Every language belongs to a specific place. It can migrate, it can spread.” In her essay, she’s talking about spoken language–Italian, specifically–but it’s the way I think about sign language, too.
Without a country, some might say sign language has no location. But I think it is located in deaf children. The director of the home intervention program for deaf and blind children in Colorado told me not to feel too guilty if we don’t have time to pick up signing–by the time Anna reaches school-age, 90% of her deaf peers won’t be using sign language (this is because 90% of them are implanted, and these children often come from families where sign language isn’t taught. I don’t blame these families. Who has time to learn a whole new language? Not everyone. I am speaking out of desire, not persuasive motives here). This statistic saddens me, as does the languishing of any established language.
Lahiri writes about how she has been living in “linguistic exile,” in a place where her language is foreign (she lives in America and her mother tongue is Bengali). She writes: “It is an absence that creates a distance within you.” I believe a total absence of sign language in our lives would eventually distance me from Anna.
It doesn’t mean I want to teach it to her right now, but it does mean I want to know it. And that’s the hardest part: when I want something, I don’t save for it, or plan for it, I want it right now, and I tend to go and get it. Same goes for Luke. But not with Anna. Ah, child, how much you have taught us, continue to teach us.
Later in her essay, Lahiri writes: “As for Italian, the exile has a different aspect. Almost as soon as we met, Italian and I were separated. My yearning seems foolish. And yet I feel it.” Which is a perfect way for us mothers of deaf children to explain to our therapists, who might know best–who likely do know best–that you cannot silence the callings of the heart, nor can you choose the language of those callings. In my heart is a hand opening and closing. It is a beckoning.