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For Deaf Refugees, Learning Sign Language Is A Challenge With Life-Changing Rewards

Alex Smith
Debbie Buchholz helps Bhutanese refugee Harka navigate a grocery store.

Maita thinks he was seven years old when he and his family were forced out of their home in Bhutan.

Starting in the late 1980s, the Himalayan country began driving out people who were ethnically Nepali. They fled across the mountains to Nepal, where they were settled in impoverished refugee camps.

“I didn’t even know Nepal. I didn’t know anything about it,” Maita explains using sign language. “We didn’t have any food. We didn’t have any shelter. We needed help cause we were starving.”

Maita and some of the other refugees in this piece asked that their last names not be used.

The difficulties of Maita’s early life were compounded by the fact that he is deaf.

Bhutan and Nepal have some of the highest rates of deafness in the world. Many people in this region lose their hearing because of a lack of basic healthcare to treat common ear infections, high fevers and measles. There’s also a stigma surrounding deafness in the region, and it’s common for deaf people to be kept out of public life by their families. 

“Some who could talk had a better life,” Maita explains. “It is different if you are deaf – not a good life.”

Like many deaf people in the region, Maita says he didn’t go to school growing up, so he didn’t learn sign language, reading or writing. Deaf people were often stuck using informal hand gestures with friends and family and had no other way of communicating.

When the Bhutanese government started pushing out the Nepalis, Maita’s parents fled without him and his sister, who was also deaf.

“They didn’t want us because we were deaf,” Maita explains. “My other brother went with my parents, but me and my deaf sister, we were on our own.”

Maita ended up living in a refugee camp in Nepal for 20 years before coming to the United States. He eventually settled in the Kansas City area.

RELATED: Discrimination Against Deaf People In The United States

A new student

At a small house in Kansas City, Kansas, Debbie Buchholz teaches a weekly American Sign Language class for deaf refugees.

Buchholz is the pastor of Deaf International Community Church, based in Olathe, Kansas.

Her dozen students are almost all Bhutanese refugees. They sit in a circle of couches and watch her use sign language to introduce a new student: Dao.  

Dao is a woman in her 40s who looks terrified. She’s a refugee from Vietnam, but, as Buchholz explains, her situation is similar to the others.

“She has never been to school. The same as you. No school,” Buchholz tells her class using sign language. “She doesn’t know sign language. Nothing. So you guys are going to help me be teachers to her. Ok? Cause you are learning to sign. You are her friends. And you know what to feel like refugee. You know hard.”

Credit Alex Smith / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Dambar (left), pictured with his wife, Til, practices writing English along with his American Sign Language lessons.

Learning American Sign Language isn’t easy. Along with thousands of signs, ASL has sophisticated grammar and vocabulary.

But what these students are doing – learning it as a first language as adults – is really hard. And scientists are just starting to understand why. 

Learning language

If you’ve ever been around young children learning a first language, you know how effortlessly they seem to pick up words and grammar.

Recent research that, in fact, young children don’t need any of the deliberate language training that many parents attempt. All it takes for children to learn a language is to be surrounded by people using it.

“Children themselves, in an unconscious process that we still don’t quite understand, are able to – through this barrage of talk that they hear – to figure out the grammar of language,” says Rachel Mayberry, linguistics professor at the University of California San Diego.

This magic window of language learning only stays open for so long, however.

Mayberry scans the brains of language learners and says certain areas seem evolved to process grammar, but if they aren’t used by age 9 or 10, they start to shut down.

“Although they are specialized for language, we see that for them to become fully operational or fully functional or fully wired, that actually requires early stimulation,” Mayberry says.

Still, for adult first-time language learners, the brain finds a way. It recruits other parts of the brain that normally process space and visual information to work double duty as language areas.

These late language learners usually don’t, or possibly can’t, use complex sentence structure or abstract vocabulary.

They probably would never use a sentence like this one - that has a dependent clause - or use a word like "linguistics."

But Mayberry says they do have some advantages. When a child is first learning a word – say "hot" – he’s learning both the word and the concept at the same time.

Adult learners already know the concepts, so they can pick vocabulary really quickly.

“There is this recognition of ‘oh my gosh, everything has a name,’ and ‘oh my gosh, I can put these concepts together,’” Mayberry says. “Learning language for these deaf individuals who are learning language late is a very important and life-changing event for them.”

Telling their stories

In Buchholz’ sign language class, the more advanced students practice their new language skills by telling stories. Most are in their 30s, 40s or 50s, and this class is the first time they’ve been able to tell others about many of heartbreaking experiences they lived through.

One class member recalls the dangerous, freezing trek through the Himalayan Mountains, when some refugees died after slipping on ice and falling.

Another remembers being terrorized by rapists who hid in forests and would kill their victims.

One man describes herds of elephants that stampeded through the refugee camps at night in search of food, crushing and killing people who slept in tents.

A woman says she was constantly afraid in the camps as a child, but she explains, “I didn’t know there was another place other than this camp.”

As Buchholz watches her students sign, she slowly shakes her head and tells them, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

A voice in the world

The teacher hopes her students will eventually be able to use their language skills beyond the classroom, so she also takes them on field trips, like a recent trip to a grocery store.

As the class steps past the automatic sliding doors, they seem stunned by the bright food packaging, the aisles of fresh produce and the rush of lunchtime shoppers.

Credit Alex Smith / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Volunteer teacher John Kingsley shows Dao, a refugee from Vietnam, the ASL signs for groceries.

She sends them on a scavenger hunt to learn to navigate the store and learn the signs for different foods, and, as they race through the aisles, their excitement about learning is obvious.

However, it doesn’t always translate to new language skills.

Because they are late to language learning, sometimes the lessons just don’t stick. Some of the class members can go for months without any progress. Others never seem to get it.

“It’s so discouraging that at times I get angry. And I don’t know who to be angry at,” Buchholz says. “A person has a right to be able to express their wants and their needs, and when I work with people that can’t express it – I do – I get very frustrated.”

But she’s always looking for signs of hope, and on this field trip, Dao shows promise.

Something seems to have clicked for this woman who seemed so lost.

Within an hour, she’s practically chasing her teacher through the aisles, pointing and demanding to know the names for melons, cabbage and carrots. What’s more amazing is that she’s signing the names back.

Suddenly, it’s not hard to imagine her shopping at a place like this on her own and finding her place in this community.

Debbie says she recognizes teaching Dao and other class members may take years, and even then, they never have effortless fluency. But that’s not the point of the classes.

“No matter what statistics say – I know they’re out there, and I understand all that – but I believe in not giving up,” Buchholz says. “I believe in giving them something that they can use to have a voice in this world.”

Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @AlexSmithKCUR.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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