Mahar students learn a new way to communicate: sign language

  • Ralph C. Mahar Regional School students, from left, Abby Henne, 15, Gracie Marsh, 16, Kaitlyn Murray, 15, and Cadence Spencer, 14, learn American Sign Language together with tutor Jillian Roche on Friday afternoon in Orange. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Jillian Roche tutors students in the American Sign Language club. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Ralph C. Mahar Regional School student Kaitlyn Murray, 15, practices during an informal American Sign Language club meeting Friday afternoon in Orange. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Published: 3/18/2019 11:26:03 PM

ORANGE — It was a chilly March day, and four Mahar students got together after school to do what many friends would — share snacks, chat about their lives and unwind after a long day.

A local boy — boyfriend maybe? — bought one of their younger sisters some ice cream; math class has been particularly grueling; there’s a play coming up they want to attend — ordinary topics for four high school friends.

Except they weren’t actually speaking, at least not with their mouths. The girls, ages 14 to 16, were talking entirely using American Sign Language. None of them are deaf, but their tutor, who sat across from them, is.

Ralph C. Mahar Regional School students Cadence Spencer, 14, Kaitlyn Murray, 15, Gracie Marsh, 16, and Abby Henne, 15, have all taken classes in American Sign Language in school. Recently, however, they’ve been stepping up to the challenge of practicing with a “native speaker,” Jillian Roche. The informal club had its second meeting after school on Friday, where they used the language to converse, ask Roche questions and answer Roche’s questions.

“This is my second time meeting with Jillian and I’ve already learned more than I ever would have,” said Henne, who has taken American Sign Language Level 3 in school.

Local photographer and sign language interpreter Kirsten Spencer, 46, who is Cadence’s mother, has coordinated the club’s meetings, which take place at her 26 South Main St. photography studio.

Kirsten Spencer learned sign language at age 13, and is a longtime friend of Roche. Growing up in Athol, Kirsten Spencer’s mother ran a daycare at their home. When Roche enrolled at age 4, the family began learning sign language in order to communicate with the young girl.

Inspired by her friend and the language they used to communicate, Kirsten Spencer went on to get her degree in sign language interpretation, and interpreted for the deaf at hospitals, schools and businesses for 25 years. She taught Cadence, as well as Cadence’s older brother, Elias, to sign from a young age.

“I wanted this (club) to happen. It’s been my dream for so long,” Kirsten Spencer said.

Roche works at a learning center for the deaf but said she has never been approached to teach non-deaf people American Sign Language. She admitted to being a little unsure about the idea at first.

“At first I was a little overwhelmed,” Roche said, with Kirsten Spencer interpreting.

“But then I felt I was happy to do it,” she said, adding that it brings her joy for young non-deaf students would want to learn her language and communicate with her.

Despite her exposure to sign language at home and at Mahar, Cadence Spencer said learning and practicing sign language with a deaf person is entirely different.

“It’s much easier with a deaf teacher,” Cadence Spencer said. “Having Jillian come, it’s something we’ve seen before… We ask her questions, she asks us questions and every time she comes it’s a lesson.”

Without being able to revert to speaking when they don’t understand something, Cadence Spencer and the other students must use sign language to seek explanations, learn new signs and ask questions. It’s akin to learning Spanish with a monolingual native speaker, rather than from a book, Cadence Spencer said. It forces them to exhaust their American Sign Language vocabularies when communicating with Roche, which increases their rate of learning. For words they don’t know, the girls use sign language to spell out the words for Roche.

“Once I met with Jillian, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I know nothing,’” Murray said.

The finer points of American Sign Language are a necessity when with a deaf person, the girls explained. For example, “signing” doesn’t actually only refer to hand gestures — body language, like raising your eyebrows when asking a question, is a vital part of the language.

“We are all dancers, so we are used to communicating with our bodies,” Marsh said. “It helps having to use my body just to memorize everything.”

And American Sign Language, they insist, is its own language. It’s not a translated version of spoken English, and it’s easy to agree with them.

Grammar patterns are different: “Do you have any nieces or nephews?” becomes, “Nieces, nephews, do you have?” Words like “any” are omitted — although there is an “any” sign in case it’s absolutely necessary.

Noticing Roche’s shoes, the girls complemented her fashion sense. Roche made sure, however, they used the right “love” for inanimate objects, rather than the sign for romantic love.

As with any language, these linguistic quirks are numerous and give rise to a unique culture. There are sign language jokes — like the “love” versus “love” mistakes.

There is also a naming system, where a sign name is given to someone — “It has to be given by a deaf person,” Cadence Spencer said — that represents something about their life, personality or character.

“When I was young, my dad would call me, ‘Cadey bug,’” Cadence Spencer said. “So, my sign is ‘bug’ but with a ‘C.’”

Similarly, Murray’s sign is an existing sign — that for “activist” because of her passion for feminism but with the finger placement altered to form a letter — “K” for “Kaitlyn,” in her case. Her name is an upright arm, clenched in a fist except for two fingers sticking out, with the arm then rotated forcefully.

There are also plays featuring sign language — not the ones with an interpreter off to the side of the stage signing for deaf members of the crowd, but plays where a speaking actor is followed around, shadowed, by a signing counterpart. The club is planning to attend such a show at the Open Door Theater in Acton in April, an interpretation of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”

The girls have been sending Snapchat videos to each other from their phones, clips that allow them to use signing the same way one might use texting. Roche is excited the girls are so enthusiastic about learning the language.

“When people like this want to use sign language, I am willing to teach them because they are learning to communicate with me and I am bringing up their comfort level,” Roche said. “For anyone who wants to learn sign language, take a class — take American Sign Language 1, 2 or 3 — even if it’s just for fun.”

Reach David McLellan at or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.


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