Zoe Jagla was a frustrated little girl, throwing temper tantrums as she tried and failed to communicate what she wanted.

Her parents searched for a sign language teacher for their severe to profoundly deaf two-year-old, but couldn’t find one until Becky Reeder and Beth Chilman came along and dedicated two to three days a week to teach her American Sign Language.

For more than four months, the Harrisburg child showed little interest in the language being modeled in front of her, struggling to discern meaning in the signs. Then one November day, Zoe put her fingers together to make the sign for “more.”

With that first sign, something clicked and Zoe was able to make a connection between the signs she was seeing and the objects and people in her world. She went around the house, eagerly pointing at items to discover their signs.

“It took her all summer long to know everything has a name and a sign, and that I (Zoe) can tell people what I want by using these things,” her mother Ashley Jagla said. “She has been so happy since then.”

With Zoe’s discovery of language, her tantrums disappeared and an insatiable curiosity for the world around her blossomed.

“It has made such a huge impact,” Ashley Jagla said. “It’s hard to even put into words how different her life is now with sign language.”

Development of ASL

American Sign Language is helping thousands of deaf and hard of hearing children and adults like Zoe express themselves and communicate in a world that would otherwise be closed off to them.

The language, considered by some estimates to be the fourth most used language in the United States, developed in the 19th century over a series of generations, transforming from a mixture of home signs children brought with them to a deaf school in Hartford, Conn. into a fully developed language several generations later.

“People think ASL is just English on the hand and that’s not what it is,” said Sherry Cook, regional director of Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf, at John A. Logan College. “It has its own syntax, its own grammar.”

An expressive language

ASL is a highly expressive language, using the body to precisely convey not just word meanings, but emotion and context as well. Cook said the eyebrows, mouth and lips all play a part in the grammar of the language and the speed a sign is made and its size can affect meaning.

"It incorporates all -- your facial expression and your body language, as well as your hand," Cook said.

ASL is an active language, requiring users to fully involve themselves in its expression.

"When students are passive and they're learning sign, I encourage them to take a drama class to break that fear about being expressive," Cook said.

ASL is not a universal language, with other countries having their own version of sign language, including German Sign Language, Russian Sign Language and Nicaraguan Sign Language, which has developed since 1980.

Boosting academic performance

ASL not only affects communication, but research suggests a possible link between academic performance and bilingualism, whether sign language or a spoken language.

"Dr. (Laura-Ann) Petito (of Gallaudet University) has proven that young children who are exposed to two languages and are fluent in two languages actually end up doing much better academically in school because when you're able to switch between two different languages, your brain is more flexible," Cook said.

Learning ASL

In addition to housing the Gallaudet University Regional Center that provides deaf and hard of hearing resources for 13 midwestern states, John A. Logan College offers an interpretive program and an ASL deaf studies program.

Cook said students aren't expected to come out of the programs fluent in the language, but are equipped with the basic skills they can build on to become fluent.

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"To really be fluent in a language, it takes six to seven years, but I have met students who have been in the program, and they work at a deaf camp, they maybe have a deaf roommate, they go out with deaf people all the time, and in two or three years they are pretty fluent," Cook said.

Similar to learning spoken languages, immersing oneself in a community of ASL users shortens the path to fluency.

John A. Logan College will host its 20th annual DEAFest 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, featuring Ricky Smith, a deaf mime. All are welcome to attend and learn more about American Sign Language and the deaf community.

Bridging a gap

The almost 200-year-old language has helped connect deaf and hard of hearing students at Marion High School, who previously had been isolated from each other.    

"It's really bridged a gap," Janice Yeager, teacher for the deaf at Marion High School, said.

Hearing students are turning to deaf students to help them sign and the two groups are finding out they have things in common with each other that transcend the language barrier.

Even though it has been effective, the two-year program is in danger of being dropped because of staffing and class shortages, according to Yeager.

Each of the seniors in the class will go on to pursue some type of career that uses ASL.

"We have two interested in becoming an interpreter for the deaf, and we have two that want to become audiologists so those kids will benefit from knowing the sign language," Yeager said.

Zoe Jagla has been fitted with cochlear implants to bring more sound into her world, and she will be attending pre-school in the fall.

But sign language will still be a daily part of her life. And her mother, Ashley, doesn't hesitate to tell parents of deaf and hard of hearing children to give sign language a try.

"Absolutely look into ASL," Ashley Jagla said. "It is so easy that even infants can learn it. It's amazing the kind of conversations with a one or two-year old you can have -- conversations you couldn't even have with a hearing child (without ASL)."

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