Texas School Clearing Static on Foreign Sign Language

Article excerpt

McALLEN, Texas -- In McAllen -- where families go back and forth across the Mexican border for dentist appointments and soccer games -- Spanish and English co-exist on billboards, in classrooms and on the radio.

Now, McAllen's bilingualism is being taken to a new level: Deaf students in the school system are learning Mexican Sign Language.

Which is not to be confused with Spanish Sign Language. Or any other sign language, for that matter. Sign languages differ vastly from country to country, even when the countries have the same spoken language.

It is highly unusual for U.S. schools even in border areas to teach Mexican Sign Language. And the class in McAllen is nothing short of a revelation for the 10 deaf students taking it.

Take Margarita Schulse, a 15-year-old who crosses the Rio Grande every weekend to visit Mexican relatives. After church, Schulse settles in with her deaf 18-year-old cousin.

The problem is that the Mexican cousin knows only Mexican sign. And until this year, Margarita knew only American sign. The teenagers struggled to communicate through crude pantomimes but never got far.

"We do our best, but it's very hard," Margarita explained through an interpreter. "Her sign language is totally different from ours."

"They cross the border and start signing, and nobody understands a single word they're saying," Mexican Sign Language teacher Jennifer Powell said. "They're lost over there."

Not even Gallaudet University in Washington, the world's only university for the deaf, offers courses in foreign sign. …