Ligeia Modugno and her best friend Alanna O’Connor, students at SUNY New Paltz, are savvy signers who teach a biweekly sign language class at Woodland Pond to complement their college studies and help seniors in their pursuit of learning. The girls frequently stop by the community to chat and dine with Modugno’s grandmother, and the idea occurred to them on one particular visit as they witnessed residents giggling as they exited a laughing class. Inspired, the two students decided it would be fun to share their love of sign language every other Thursday during a one-hour class.
“I’m majoring in speech pathology and Alanna is majoring in education, so we thought this would be a good opportunity for us to actually take a class together, given our different degrees, and it is a class that will be supplemental for both of our careers,” said Modugno. “What started out as a language requirement has turned into a passion for both of us, and we are now aiming to complete our certification in the language. This requires that we take five semesters of sign language and complete a 60-hour internship, designed by us, that involved community participation. Even though our internship is almost over, we plan on continuing to teach the class as long as there is an interest for it. The seniors at Woodland Pond really appreciate us; they are a delight to be around and are enthusiastic learners. I do not think their interest will wane anytime soon.”
Each class starts with a review of the alphabet, which is for spelling out words that people do not know how to sign. The rest of the class, says Modugno, depends on the interests of the residents. Some participants enjoy practicing signs through educational games, such as bingo or jeopardy, while others enjoy practicing the language through conversational pieces. Additionally, Modugno and O’Connor review exercises from previous lessons. Their goal is to fulfill the interests of the residents, who seem particularly fond of learning anything that pertains to family.
“People cancel appointments and even rearrange their schedule just to attend the sign language class,” expressed Marilyn Coffey, an 80-year-old resident at Woodland Pond and grandmother of Ligeia Modugno. “Some of us come to learn for fun, others are more serious about the class. One couple attends so they can learn how to communicate with their deaf grandchild. Another lady has grandchildren who were born in Germany and who speak both German and English. There are many simple phrases that she teaches them. Given their diverse language background, she thought this would be a visual and expressive form of communication for them all to practice.I am so proud of my granddaughter and her friend for volunteering their time to teach my neighbors and me about sign language.”
“There is so much expression in sign language, it sometimes feels like common sense,” said O’Connor. “However, it can get tricky because some signs look similar, but represent different words. There are different signs for the same word depending upon the context of the word. All-in-all though, it is a great way to communicate with people. I am hoping to add it to my lesson plans when I become a teacher. I feel that learning sign language is good for all ages and backgrounds. There are some residents in our class, who have a hard time hearing, yet they come to every class and they love it because it makes them feel younger, more involved and social.”
The students believe that learning is an important cognitive process that should be practiced at every age, because learning stimulates the brain and keeps people engaged. They also believe that sign language is a very effective method of non-verbal communication. The Federation of the Deaf estimates that 70 million people use sign language as their first language.