Tutor bridges language gap
The Arizona Republic
Aug. 26, 2005

Judd Slivka


There's a question on the table, and it gets translated two ways, from English to Spanish and from English into American Sign Language.

The question is aimed at Celene Espinoza, who is learning sign language so she can communicate with her two deaf children.

"Did you ever think you'd be as proficient as you are?"

It gets translated. Espinoza, who lives in central Phoenix, blushes.

Next to her, Lisa Markham, the woman who is teaching Espinoza American Sign Language, starts smiling and nodding emphatically.

"Yes," Markham signs, and Espinoza blushes.

This is the critical relationship, the tutor who makes it possible for a hearing parent to communicate with a deaf child. In this case, the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf received a grant from Target to institute a program called "Shared Reading," designed to send tutors into homes and help parents be able to read to their deaf children.

It's an entirely new kind of reading, where the voice is replaced by signs and where facial expressions and body movements are part of the language itself.

In the case of the Espinozas, who speak Spanish at home, whose children use American Sign at school and who read books printed in English, the process gets a bit trickier. It's a gap that Markham bridges by cutting out the middleman. It's something that's happening more and more often: The school's population is nearly half Hispanic.

"We forget English completely," she said. "We just eliminate it. You're reading the book and you look at the pictures and you just do the sign for what you're looking at."

So in that way, a libro remains a libro in Espinoza's mind, but she signs the American Sign Language for "book."

There are five children in Espinoza house; only Jesus, 8, and Yosseline, 4, are deaf. It runs in the family; Espinoza's mother and uncle were deaf, as well.

But not being able to communicate with the two children was an exercise in frustration. Mexican sign language has completely different signs than American, and there was the Spanish-English-American Sign issue.

And then Markham, who teaches at the deaf school, showed up at the house.

"We were anxious for her to come to the house," Espinoza said through a translator.

"My kids were very excited to see her. They recognized her right away. The whole family got around her. We paid attention to what she taught us.

"It was a wonderful moment."

They've been at it since May, and communication with Jesus and Yosseline is much better, Espinoza said. The books from school come with videotapes that help teach signs and body movement that go along with the story, and Markham has been a blessing.

They'll continue working together - Yosseline is almost old enough for kindergarten - and Espinoza's American Sign will continue to improve.