By Erika Khair
Student Writer, EKU Communications & Marketing
American Sign Language and deaf education both have their roots in France, so where better for students in Eastern Kentucky University’s Department of American Sign Language and Interpreter Education to explore historical perspectives and broaden their cultural horizons.
This past summer, eight students (seven hearing and one deaf) along with two interpreters and two professors, Sharon Lott and Dr. Laurence Hayes, headed across the Atlantic to learn about cultural differences between deaf French people and deaf Americans, as well as the cultural differences between hearing people in France and the United States.
“Because EKU students in ASL are learning how to work between two worlds as part of the deaf world and the hearing world – two languages – in their studies,” Hayes said, “going over and seeing that on a very large scale was an ‘aha’ moment for many of the students to understand the worldview of French and English, French culture, deaf French culture, French sign language and helped to really enforce what we’re doing here at Eastern.”
The group spent three weeks in France, visiting Paris, Versailles and Reims in the north and Montpelier in the south. They visited major landmarks such as the Louvre and Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Palace of Versailles, as well as the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris, the world’s first free school for the deaf, founded in 1760, and the International Deaf Film Festival in Reims.
They also participated in deaf coffee nights at a restaurant in Montpelier, which has a large deaf community. Lott described the gatherings as packed, with some attendees having to stand in the parking lot due to lack of space.
“They found out Americans were in the country, and we were interacting with them using international sign language,” she said. “They wanted to see our signs; we wanted to see their signs and compare things like that, so that was really fun.”
The trip taught the group more about communicating in another culture, with the deaf members of the group having an easier time than the hearing members, due to the similarities that exist between American and French sign language. At the International Film Festival, the group met deaf people from around Europe and was able to communicate with them through the international sign language system Gestuno.
Differences between French and American culture still required adjustments.
“Not many people speak English in Montpelier,” said Preston Spade, a sophomore international business and business management major with a minor in ASL. “In Paris they do, but in Montpelier, in southern France, they do not, so when we came they expected us to learn French.”
The group noticed the slower pace of living, especially in southern France, and a greater emphasis on spending time with one’s family. Restaurants closed between lunch and dinner, with dinner beginning late in the evening and lasting two or three hours.
“It really didn’t matter what restaurant we went to,” Hayes said. “They took a tremendous amount of pride in the service, in the quality of the food, in making sure you were having a positive experience eating there.”
There were also differences between asking a question in the United States and in France.
“In America, we just go up to a person and say, ‘Excuse me, can you help me?’” Lott said. “But we were being very rude because there’s a cultural difference. We later learned from another person that when you greet a person you say ‘Bonjour’ and they will help you. You need to do your greeting first. Culturally speaking, we learned along the way.”
Spade’s favorite experience on the trip was the International Deaf Film Festival and the deaf party night that followed, featuring famous deaf performers.
“We saw a lot of different performers in different languages, sign languages, so that was an incredible experience for me,” he said.
Lott said the deaf coffee nights were also some of the group’s best experiences and that she enjoyed seeing all of the historical landmarks, including aqueducts and a coliseum dating to the Roman Empire, and learning about French culture.
This was the first trip to France sponsored by the Department of American Sign Language and Interpreter Education, but another is planned for next year.
“We had some students who had never travelled,” Lott said. “I think it was a culture shock while they were in France, but they came back with quite a different life experience. When they stepped outside of their American box, so to speak, I think it was very educational and enriching for them.”
Financial support for the trip was provided by University Programs, the College of Education and the Provost’s Office. Education Abroad staff assisted in arranging the trip. For more information about Education Abroad opportunities at EKU, visit studyabroad.eku.edu, contact the office at 859-622-8794 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact Jennifer White at email@example.com.
EKU boasts one of only nine baccalaureate degree programs nationally accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Interpreter Education.