Silent Night

Students experience an evening out speaking only sign language


The group of Gila Community College students at Pizza Hut Thursday night could hear the metal clang of pizza pans being set on the counter and the conversation of other diners.

Yet, to communicate with the waitress and each other, these second-semester American Sign Language students, could only use their hands.


Waitress Heather Buchanan takes the sign language order of Gila Community College student Sondi Hilgendorf and professor Peggy Miles. Each semester, American Sign Language students experience the unique social situation called Silent Night. The evening's class is dinner at a local restaurant. The catch is that the students cannot speak, except through sign language.

"The first dinner, last semester, was very scary," Sondi Hilgendorf said.

A number of students said the fact that they had expanded their vocabulary in the past semester made the evening much more enjoyable the second time around.

"I wanted them to feel a little bit of the frustration associated with speaking a language different than the one being used in the environment (they were in)," professor Peggy Miles said.

A deaf child Miles babysat when she was a girl inspired her to earn her associate degree in sign language interpretation.

Waitress Heather Buchanan said she has waited on people with hearing disabilities in the past.

"Some deaf people have come in, but they read lips or could talk a little bit or write things out," she said.

The ASL students were a bit tougher to wait on because they pointed out items or tried to sign what they wanted to eat and drink.

A few of the signs used in ASL are easily understood by people who don't "speak" the language.

The ASL sign for water is a "w," made with the middle three fingers at the chin.

The sign Miles used to tell the waitress she wanted water looked like a "w" dragged down her torso.

Student Geri Mirko nodded "yes" with her hand when the waitress pointed to Pepsi, then Diet, on the menu.

ASL is a visual gestural language indigenous to the American deaf community. ASL is often acquired as a first language by deaf children who have deaf parents.

The body is used as a timeline when people communicate using ASL.

Past tense is indicated by a wave of the hand over the shoulder. Signers using present tense hold their hands closer to the body. Future tense is indicated by an arms forward posture.

Practice is the only way to learn a new language.

"I didn't practice during winter break and when I returned to class, I felt rusty," Mirko said.

The only person she had trouble communicating with at Silent Night was this reporter who thought she knew the alphabet.

"It is easier to sign than to receive," Hilgendorf said on Monday.

ASL is a language Hilgendorf plans to learn in the hopes of making it part of her church's children's ministry.

Each person has a slightly different style that affects others ability to read what they are signing.

Donna Moore, a physical education teacher at Julia Randall Elementary School, recently visited Gallaudet University, a liberal arts university for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington D.C.

Out of 5,000 teachers attending the American Alliance of Heath, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance workshop, she was the only one who chose to visit to Gallaudet. So, she had four personal tour guides around the university.

Moore asked her guides if it was difficult to communicate with freshman students.

Just as Moore and her fellow students had begun to understand, the GU students said individual hand styles were picked up quickly.

"Some signers are very sloppy and for all of us just learning, we need the exact hand position or letter," Moore said.

She took sign language in order to communicate better with her autistic students.

In her 25 years of teaching, she found that signing has a calming effect on these students when they feel bombarded with too much noise.

"Silent Night is an eye-opener," Hilgendorf said. "Now, we have a better understanding of how hard it is for deaf people to communicate."

The evening ended in a language just about everyone shares -- laughter.

When the waitress asked Miles if she wanted a box for her pizza, Miles opened her mouth and said, "Yes."

Sign Language I will be offered at Gila Community College in the fall as a morning class.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.