S2 Ep6: Talking about the language of Irish Sign Language and Deaf Education with Senan Dunne and Elizabeth Matthews.

In this conversation Senan Dunne and Elizabeth Matthews talk with me about their views on the use of Irish Sign Language, Deaf Education, and the beauty of ISL as a language. Each bringing their own unique perspective as a deaf and a hearing person (respectively) this conversation offers an invaluable insight into some of the work being done in the field of deaf education and ISL in Ireland.

Video of chat with ISL Interpretation

Resources from this episode

DCU Deaf Education Webinar Series

Irish Deaf Society

Transcript of this episode


Irish Sign Language, ISL , Deaf Education, linguistics. ISL Curriculum.  


Senan Dunne, Elizabeth Matthews, Mags

Mags  00:00

Welcome to talking about all things inclusion, a podcast where I get to meet and learn from people in the field of inclusion in its broadest sense that inspire me. I hope they’ll inspire you to. Today I am talking with Elizabeth Matthews and Senan Dunne. We also have an Irish Sign Language interpreter with us today, Lisa Dunne. As Lisa will be interpreting for us today, there will be pauses throughout the conversation. Elizabeth is an Associate Professor with the School of Inclusive and Special education in DCU St. Patrick’s Campus, where she specialises in the area of deaf education. She completed her MA in deaf education at Gallaudet- Elizabeth you can pronounce that later- in Washington, DC in 2005, and her PhD with Maynooth University in 2011. Previously, she was the coordinator of the Deaf Education Centre in Cabra Dublin, sat on the board of management of Holy Family School for the Deaf in Cabra, and is currently the co chair of the Education Partnership Group. She’s the project lead for the Irish Sign Language STEM glossary project, along with a number of other research projects. She has also designed and delivered a pathway into primary teaching for deaf ISL  users. Her recent research publications include work on power in the deaf education community, literacy and deafness, socio-emotional development for deaf children, life skills development in vulnerable deaf adults and teacher self efficacy. Senan is an Assistant Professor in Deaf Education at DCU, where he lectures on The Bachelor of Education  the sign language pathway for teachers who will be recognised with a primary qualification in ISL. Prior to that Senan was an ISL co-ordinator for over 20 years in Holy Family School for the Deaf Cabra which welcomes deaf and hard of hearing pupils from age 3 to 20.   Elizabeth and Senan I have had the opportunity to connect with you and learn not only about deaf education but the language of Irish Sign Language and the importance of recognising it as a language not a communication tool. I’m so delighted to be able to continue learning with you today and to share that learning with others

Elizabeth Matthews  02:24

 Thanks, Mags. It’s lovely to be here.

Senan Dunne  02:30

Thanks. Thanks.

Mags  02:32

So, can you start off by telling us a little bit about yourselves your backgrounds? And what it was that led you to this important advocacy work for deaf education in Ireland? Senan, would you like to go first?

Senan Dunne  02:47

Oh, let me say that’s a, that’s a, I don’t know if I will have time to give you the background of why, what might led me to this but I’ll condense it as best I can. So obviously, ahm I started in deaf school myself when I was three years old, I started as a boarder. So I’ve been through the deaf education system myself so I have a knowledge of it, a firsthand knowledge and I know what it’s like as a child to go through the system. And you know, it can compare to other deaf people who’ve also been through it. In terms of being an advocate for deaf people, I think I believe every deaf and hard of hearing child have a right to full access to the national curriculum. And you know, to have a healthy social emotional development, whatever school you know, contexts or placement that they’re in, be it you know, a deaf school or a mainstream school or a smaller group, a deaf school within a mainstream school. So that’s it really.

Elizabeth Matthews  03:40

For me, Mags I suppose it’s a this is a professional interest in deaf education and sign language. You’ll find many people in this field who have a family connection, you know, they may have grown up with deaf parents or have a deaf sibling or maybe have a deaf child. But for me, it was an interest in in sign language, I was interested in languages generally. And found language just to be something that was very unique and different for me as a young person who was learning about languages. So from there then I learned about the history of deaf education, which I find to be extremely interesting. And I suppose  the, the debates over the use of sign language and whether or not sign language was allowed at different stages in the deaf education system was something that I was very interested in. And my interest piqued, I suppose at a time when there was very little research happening in this field,  in Ireland, and I had the opportunity to study deaf education when I was living in the United States and returned to Ireland and then had an opportunity to do some research here in the area. So yeah, professional interests, I suppose, is the best way of summarising my involvement in the field.

Mags  04:56

Thanks. And as both of you were talking two things that that I think are really aligned came to mind. And that was when Senan you talked about the right of every child to access the curriculum. And Elizabeth, you honed in on the language. And I remember I had an aha moment last year when I was at the deaf education seminar, when I really became to understand that ISL is a language and not a tool to communicate, whether it be English, French, German, that Irish Sign Language is a language. Can you talk more about that in  terms of accessibility to the national curriculum and where Deaf Education sits within that?

Senan Dunne  05:43

Yeah, no, absolutely. Mags. ISL. You know, there isn’t that misconception that it’s a tool and that, you know, you can’t use it, you can only use it for certain things. But it’s been well researched, like ISL is its own language. There’s a  there’s very little research on ISL itself, like Liz was saying, but from other countries, and the research been done on other countries sign languages, we can see that there are many linguistic aspects to it, we can compare ourselves to others and compared to spoken languages, and it’s very well researched in other countries. And, you know, I mean, maybe, you know, for me, I can see, like, if I compare it to  American Sign Language, they can see this a lot like a wealth of research a wealth of information, and they say themselves as well. There is only in the infancy stage of research, which is, you know, amazing if you think about it. And so the big difference that we notice, as well as ISL, you know, being able to use ISL that  you can provide information in language that has an equivalence to English and to other languages, that means that children will have a better learning. I mean its the same in Ireland , you know, if you have your L one or L two learner, so say someone’s L1 is English, and their L2 Is Irish, or the other way around, like if you’re, obviously more often, if you’re in the west of the country, it’s the same, it’s the same idea. It’s exact same idea with children, you’re learning English and Irish Sign Language, or having Irish Sign Language as one of their languages. I don’t know, Elizabeth, if you want to add to that.

Elizabeth Matthews  07:04

Yeah, I suppose there are, there are lots that we could talk about lots of issues we could talk about here, Mags. The first one, I suppose being that, you know, the, the attitudes towards our sign language within the education system in Ireland were very negative for a long time. And that had a considerable impact on its standing within the education system. So I suppose we are still dealing with the legacy of that, in that, for example, many deaf children would learn through the medium of Irish Sign Language. So they’re accessing the curriculum through Irish Sign Language, but they might not be formally learning Irish Sign Language as a subject. So they might not have that meta linguistic awareness of the grammar and structure and syntax of their own language in the way that we would say expect children to have for English and for Gaeilge, coming through the curriculum here. And the other, one of the other big implications that I would see in the education system is that deaf children who use Irish Sign Language, are probably the only cohort of children in the country who don’t have the opportunity to sIt a leaving cert subject in their language if they’re doing the Leaving Cert Established. So if you speak Russian as your first language, or Greek, or Mandarin, or Japanese, or a host of other languages, you can sit a leaving cert subject in that language. I’m not going to say that they are the only group because I haven’t sat down to make sure but nearly every other language is covered. But I’m fairly confident that they are one of the only cohorts who can’t benefit from doing a leaving cert subject in their first language. So I think that there’s there’s a number of, there are a number of gaps in in curriculum for Irish Sign Language users here. And we certainly have improved a lot in terms of the attitude towards ISIL in the education system, but we are still dealing with the legacy I think of that era.

Mags  09:03

I think you make a really interesting point there Elizabeth when you talk about languages available for state exams, and it seems to be in Ireland every time the population of a nationality increases in Ireland, then we add their language  subject, as is right, to our examination system. But we are ignoring a group of our own society when we don’t do it for our learners who are learning ISL. And I was listening to something on the radio this morning and it was two parents who were talking about the challenges of A) finding an ISL interpreter for their children at school. And B) and I don’t know which comes first, but B) that they couldn’t find somebody to teach their children ISL

Elizabeth Matthews  09:52

I’ll let Sanan come in in a second on this but it’s not, it’s not a huge surprise that that those struggles are there for parents and I think that there is a degree of a geographical lottery here. You know, depending on where you are, you may have someone local to you. And it’s not, it’s not necessarily the case that it’s only the big cities that get well served here. I think in the big cities, yes, there are more people working in these areas. But that also means there’s more of a drain on those individuals, because there’s a larger population. So you could just be lucky in a particular area of the country that there are local people to you who will teach ISL or where you have an interpreter who will work. But there’s there is a huge shortage. And I know that there have been a couple of new roles introduced to the system in the last 12 months. And we’re not at the stage yet I don’t think we’re we have ample people to fill the roles that we’re creating. Senan I’m sure that’s probably been similar to your experience, and when we’re trying to find people to work in this sector.

Senan Dunne  10:58

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I hate to say, but like, Elizabeth is  saying, I’m not surprised. And I do hate to say I’m not surprised. I feel like it’s old news kind of among the deaf community, and it is such a pity. And I know those, you know, people who are offering these things, they need to provide the resources, then it needs to be the needs to be it means more attractive for people to go and do these courses so that they provide the services. Or for those who are doing ISL at home tuition. You know, though people who do them, they’re saying it’s not worth it like Elizabeth is saying, you know, people will go locally, but if there’s somewhere you’re really far away, they have to travel themselves. And if they’re, you know, they get paid for their work, but they don’t get paid for travel expenses. And that’s it, people who live more rural, it’s more difficult for them, compared to, you know, say visiting teachers or teachers that are provided for the ISL tutors, they wouldn’t get the same benefits as that. So it’s quite limited for them. So you feel like it’s not ,it’s not attractive, and it’s not practical for them to be able to provide a service as much as guys they can. It is a pity. But that is definitely one thing I’ve noticed anyway.

Elizabeth Matthews  11:55

Yeah. And I mean, like, it’s a great. You know, we spoke about the change in attitudes. And it’s fantastic to see that that has changed. And that at the top level, you know, that there are now positions being advertised that reflect and recognise the importance of ISL. There are very practical logistical difficulties now for us to address within the system in terms of supply of people to those jobs, and continued upscaling. And then as Senan  mentioned, you know, things like the Irish Sign Language, home tuition service, which is provided out of the Department of Education, you know, that there’s a complete overhaul really needed on that service, so that it’s attractive for people to work in it. So yes, the attitude has changed. And that’s wonderful. But now  there are very logistical, practical things that we need to remedy.

Mags  12:41

Absolutely. So it’s really about how we can work to remove those barriers, to not only access to ISL and learning it, but then about access to our curriculum. And you’ve both been advocating in different ways here. And I know, Elizabeth, you’ve been banging down agency doors saying we need our ISL videos, everyone needs to be engaging in this, both of you are working on the primary education, Irish Sign Language pathway, where students are actually getting the recognition they’re not getting in school, or the qualification of working through Irish Sign Language. Would both or either of you like to talk about that?

Senan Dunne  13:26

 Well, obviously, this is my fourth year now in DCU. And it’s been fascinating to see the evolution of it, like establishing the course and the evolution of it up until now, but in teaching is the biggest challenge for me was, how do I translate this kind of academic, you know, BEd, this is like a new newly developed kind of pathway, how do I, you know, translate that and bring it over so that it’s, it works here. But it’s important to know, as well that in literacy say we do have English, but there is ISL literacy as well. And literature. So like spoken  poetry or stories, and it’s so difficult to get the resources or even to develop the resources for these. So we have to continually do things on the spot quite often, or see if we can all develop them ourselves. And it’s, so we’re learning about the language and the linguistics, but also, you know, we need to make it enjoyable and interesting for the students and for anybody like you and me. So we were developing things all the time and the deaf students that have been with us, they’re going through the process with us, I guess, of the evolution of it, of the change of it. And so it has been brilliant. Ahm the  skills are there. We have the skills, we just don’t really realise what we,  we just need to know what to do with them, you know, that way, so we’re learning in that sense.

Elizabeth Matthews  14:44

Yeah, I’m really glad Senan mentioned the poetry issue. That, I think that was one of my favourite parts of the four years was in one of the ISL modules. We were talking about, you know, this concept of literature in in sign languages and introducing them to some poetry from other sign languages, because we don’t have an awful lot in the Irish context. But for their assignment, each of the students then had to compose a poem in Irish Sign Language, which, you know, as a hearing person having come through the primary school system, I think every year, in my primary schooling, I would have had to compose a poem about something. It’s just a normal part of, of the process of growing up is that you know, you, you make these little poems as you go along, and you draw a picture to accompany it. And it was just something that we did, the four students that we have in the programme, none of them had ever had the opportunity to compose a poem in Irish Sign Language before. So this was their first ever foray into creative use of ISL. And I think it was a real mental shift for them to think about ISL as a language, that’s not just as Senan said, you know, it’s not just about, you know, access to literacy, or it’s not just about a functional language to access information. That this is a language that you can use for creative output. And definitely one of the highlights of the four years for me.

Senan Dunne  16:03

Yeah, absolutely Mags. Yeah.

Mags  16:03

Absolutely. And I had the privilege of actually experiencing that at the  deaf education conference last year.  I stopped reading words, or watching the interpreter or listening to the interpreter, and just followed the facial expressions and the body language of the poet. And for me, this was again telling me that ISL isn’t just about our two hands. It’s about everything that happens on the face and the movement of the body. And I don’t think a lot of people understand that. And  we’re focusing on one small aspect of a very beautiful, and emotive and active language.  Yeah. And just again, and again, we talked about. Senan did you want to come in?

Senan Dunne  16:30

No, I was just gonna say just in relation to what you were saying there. I think it -you know, the facial expressions, body language is the same for deaf and hard of hearing children. You mentioned that, you know, that I used to teach in Holy Family, they take kids from the age of three upwards. But before I moved from there, in my last few years I was I working a lot in early intervention. So that’s children  aged three to five. And I would do stories with them three times a week. And I’d go to early intervention and those kids, you know, they wouldn’t have had, a lot of them wouldn’t have had exposure to sign language yet. So it would, like it would be like that they’re  visual, they are visual beings. Deaf and hard of hearing people are naturally visual beings, they’re attracted to things that are very visual. And so I, you know, we wanted the same kind of thing for our four students to be able to produce something like very visual to make it fascinating for us as well. So, yeah,

Mags  17:42

I think it’s a big part of that access. And when we talk about ISL, when we talk about an any category of need, we always use the word accommodations. And this is, this is how much I got from that deaf education. Last year, you invited me over to the party with you. And I was in the room with all of the ISL interpreters. And as we do, we multitask. So hearing people, I was listening, I didn’t need to look at sign language, or I didn’t need to read a script. So I was able to go to my Tesco online shopping, I was able to close my eyes have a little bit of a daydream while still hearing everything. And I noticed as the day went on, that some of the deaf members were saying they were tired, and they needed to sign off. And again, it brought home to me how tiring having to navigate all of those different things is. I was exhausted as the hearing person in a room with Deaf people who were accommodating me. I was the person with the need, and we never look at it that way. They had to pause their conversations when they realised that I had no clue what was going on. Lisa stopped eating her lunch to interpret for me. And nobody their saw it as an accommodation. But when we bring a deaf person into our hearing world, we see it as an accommodation.

Senan Dunne  19:09

 Yeah, absolutely, definitely.

Elizabeth Matthews  19:12

It’s a, it’s like the mental shift. That’s that. Like just that it’s it’s the mental shift that’s needed. And as a hearing academic in this field, like I’m speaking today, I’m not signing because logistically with one interpreter, I thought, Okay, we’ll go this way with it today. But the more that I can use ISL and not speech is- I’m I’m trying to make a more conscious effort to shift the balance in meetings, for example, so that okay, if I’m in a room, and I’m in a room with two ISL users and three other hearing people and we have ISL interpreters there, that I should be using ISL and have my voice interpreted for the hearing person just to shift that focus and it’s not the way that I thought about this for a long time. I thought, Okay, I’ll use speech because I’m more -it’s, it’s my first language, I’m more comfortable with it, I’m more confident. But it was actually my interactions with Irish language users on campus and the fact that I speak Irish to people on campus, even though both of us speak English, I speak Irish to them. And it requires an effort on my part, because it’s not my most comfortable language. But it’s worth the effort because this is a minority language that if you don’t use it, it will it will disappear. So why was I not thinking the same way about ISL? That, why don’t I not just use this and not it’s not a case of I only use it with people who need it? Or that I only use it when I have to use it. But actually, this is a language and I should just use it because it’s a language that I love. It’s like, I think that maybe more hearing people need to think about ISL that way. But I’d be interested actually, to hear Senan’s thoughts on this. Because sometimes I think, if you’re not a fluent user of ISL, like I will think, Oh, well, maybe I’d be better using the interpreter because it’ll be clearer for deaf people than having to put up with my kind of mish match version of ISL. But that’s not the way I would approach this. If I was speaking Irish, where we have that lovely phrase in the Irish language. Sorry, Lisa, now there’s – for the interpreter -there’s a bit of Irish coming your way, but it’s  Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla cliste. That you’re better to use broken Irish than perfect English. And I think we need a little bit more of that in in ISL. Senan?

Senan Dunne  21:27

No, that’s it, that’s fine. As long as absolutely. You know, it’s okay. Like, like, like that using the broken language is much better, like I think, to get things firsthand, even if someone is struggling fully, but like, it doesn’t matter to get things firsthand directly from a person. Or like if someone says something that, you know, they might, she’s said the wrong word there. Oh, no, she shouldn’t have said that. But like, it doesn’t matter, I’d regret we would rather look like I mean, you can use interpreters, interpreters  are handy. It’s great for access. But I think you know, but it’s through somebody else, the firsthand like experience, of communication is much better. The deaf students. You know, they have different signs of skills, hearing people have different signs of skills, like fluency is very subjective. Like I have a reputation like for my reputation for my type of fluency, and I need to let that go. And you need to think about what the message is what the communication, what are you trying to communicate? What are you trying to get across, you know, to build up your own direct relationships with people and have that interaction directly. But like, you know,  I think we need to put the spotlight on ISL. And we need to come away from the other  thinking of it because I- growing up I was told ISL was a sin. I was brought up to think that you should  feel shame if you try to use it yourself. And so I’ve had my own shift in it and think. I said it’s another language, it’s another language and equal language, it’s an equivalent language, and we should just put the spotlight on it now.

Mags  22:47

Yeah, I love that and I love the terms, you know, we should be using the language, it’s not a tool. And one thing and I love your I never know if I’m right or wrong here. And it’s a cause of discomfort that I lean into. But when you’re communicating with a deaf person, your eyes and body language tend to move to the interpreter who’s speaking to you. And it’s trying to make that conscious decision. I know I’m having the conversation with Senan. But I tend to veer to Lisa. And again, it’s okay if I make that small mistake, and I move back. But then some people get so uncomfortable, they get flustered. They stop the conversation nearly and walk away.

Senan Dunne  23:30

That is a challenge, especially for people you know, the first time they come in touch with a deaf person with an interpreter, but you know, often, you know, it takes time and just, you know, be kind yourself, take it easy on yourself. Everybody’s very supportive like Elizabeth, she she you know, she had her own bad experiences when she first started as well, you know, and I think we just need to go through everything you’ll get there.

Mags  23:31

is the learning is so important. Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Matthews  23:34

Yeah, like we’ve been providing lots of ISL classes and Deaf Awareness opportunities on our campus for staff and students here for our hearing staff and students. And we’ve been evaluating that as we go along. And one of the things that comes out nearly all of the time in the evaluation is that hearing people wanted an opportunity to learn how to communicate with deaf people, that this was a cause of anxiety for them that there were deaf students coming on campus, and that they didn’t know – they were afraid of doing the wrong thing. Or they were afraid that they were going to embarrass themselves or embarrass the student. And they wanted an opportunity to do this in a safe space. And that it was really important for them that the person who was delivering the ISL class or delivering the Deaf Awareness Training was a deaf person. Even though the minute that the deaf person walked into the room at the start of that class or at the start of that session, the hearing people kind of went, Oh, no, how are we going to do this? You know that there’s that initial discomfort but they were glad to have the opportunity to do that in a safe space. And I will always remember for one of our ISL classes where we were teaching a group of hearing B Ed students ISL. And we had our usual ISL teacher there. But some of our deaf students from the B Ed programme joined to kind of, you know, do little small group activities. And one of our students at the end of that session said to the hearing students look, just come up to us in class or after class, don’t be afraid of us, because we are used to hearing people not knowing how to communicate with us, we’re used to the fact that hearing people aren’t comfortable with this. And we’ll help you through that. So I thought that that was just a really lovely way for I think, you know, hearing people kind of think, oh, it’s because the deaf person can’t communicate with me, but for this Deaf student to say to them, Look, we know you can’t communicate with us. So that’s okay, we’ll work with you where you’re at with your level of sign language. And if we could get that message out to more people to just use whatever sign you have, comfortably and confidently that we’ll meet you the rest of the way.

Senan Dunne  25:56

That’s definitely Elizabeth. I think, I don’t know if it’s cultural or not. But like, maybe here, people in general, would not make as much eye contact when speaking with people, there’s always that kind of looking away looking around or might have their hand or hands in your pockets. And I’ve noticed that like people a lot more lately, either use their hands more. I’m saying just just your point. You know, if you see someone – I know this, that the concept of pointing is quite a rude thing to do-  but in the deaf community, it’s not rude, you know, we use pointing all the time, a thumbs up can mean so many things, gestures, or those kind of things. And after a while, people get more comfortable, they start to use their body language, a bit more communication becomes so much easier,

Mags  25:58

It really does and I  like that it’s not going in with the mentality that the deaf person can’t communicate with the hearing person, its neither of us can communicate with each other. And we need to remove that barrier together. And I love that Senan. And I’m going to come back to you for a minute if you don’t mind. Because, again, last year, I got to see your work on your perspectives of the primary language curriculum. And it’s the first space I think were Irish Sign Language has really kicked off in terms of debating where its place in education should be. So I’d just love if you could share some of  those perspectives, with our readers, listeners, anybody who’s watching this?

Senan Dunne  27:20

Oh, that’s a very broad question. You know, if I’m thinking about ISL in the curriculum, I always think about deaf schools and what’s important at the moment, you know, there is no formal ISL curriculum, but it is a language and as the language there should be. So I guess its position in education is kind of, you know, it should be in the same position as Irish in English and other languages. I mean, I don’t see, you know, why not? It should be. It’s, you know, there is the ISL Act from 2017 that was passed. So it’s, you know, the language of Ireland, and official language of Ireland. And I think that for the curriculum, I, you know, I know, often there’s that misconception of like, oh, it’s not, there’s not like an equivalent, or it’s not the same, but it’s like, it’s ISL, it’s not, you know, you have what you’re speaking about in English, but in ISL it has its own other nuances. Like, if you look at, if you look at it as a  curriculum there’s  the history of ISL, the culture of, of Ireland, and everything like that, all of these things need to be included. Ahm it’s a visual language, there are so many differences to it, like, but it does have its own linguistic structure, and grammar structure and everything, they all need to be included in it as well. I think for me, you know, if I’m focused on the deaf schools, I think maybe I shouldn’t just focus on the deaf schools. Maybe there should be an ISL curriculum in the Department of Education on the website, or, you know, ahm, you know, for the National Council for Curriculum and  Assessment or anything, anywhere, NCCA anywhere. And they should have the curriculum just available to anybody that wants to use it. And not only the deaf schools. I mean, it is  a work in progress. But I feel that, like I was saying earlier on, there is very little research here in Ireland. And so we’re following, you know, research and best practices in another country. So we are trying to piece it together. But I think we need to just ignore the fact that we’re trying to do that, I think, you know, it is a living document. So we’ll be able to change, as we get more research, we can adapt and amend in any space that we need to, it’s a very new area for me as well. But I think we should just set up just broadly available and I hope I answered your question there.

Mags  29:17

Yeah you did. Elizabeth would you like to come in on that.

Elizabeth Matthews  29:21

Just that, you know, I think that the first step for us often is looking at what we already have. And you know, something that Senan  and I do with the students is looking at our primary language curriculum, and see, okay, you know, can we use this document as it currently is and just adapt it for use with Irish Sign Language teaching, and we get them to do that as part of one of their assignments, you know, where they look at some of the, the progression continuum within that document and see, okay, will, let’s work what needs to be adapted what needs to be amended, what else could go in. You know, that  document as it stands is broad enough that I think we can capture a lot of what we need to teach within ISL in it. But the other thing that Senan mentioned is that we do is look to our international colleagues. And I think in particular with our students, we looked at the New Zealand curriculum, we looked at what they’re doing in the UK and the US to see, you know, what, what did the standards look like? Because I suppose that’s really what we’re missing here. And we lack the research on that that you know,  for a deaf child coming from a deaf family Irish Sign Language is their first language, what would we expect them to be able to achieve, say, by first class, in terms of their Irish Sign Language use?  We don’t have a very clear picture of that here. I think we’re looking overseas at what others are saying, Okay, this is what we, this is what we would expect of a child at this stage. And this is what we expect of a child, etc, etc. But the absence of that in the Irish context does make it problematic. And I suppose it’s a difficult thing to research because more so than hearing children, deaf children come to Irish Sign Language from a very diverse set of circumstances. Which means that, you know, if you have  30 7-year old deaf children in the same room, their ISL skills are bound to be very, very diverse.  There’s a huge range there in terms of those that maybe only have a very few number of words that they’re using alongside spoken English, to those who are using fluent Irish Sign Language. Ahm, on its own its  a very complex, sophisticated use of the language. So it’s partly that diversity. And it’s partly the lack of research in the Irish context that does leave it difficult for us to know and to kind of measure where children should be at different stages. But I think those challenges are normal to have at any field as Senan mentioned, you know, it’s in its infancy with this research, but we shouldn’t let it stop us, there’s always one step that we can take, that’s the next step on in in this journey.

Mags  32:04

So am I correct in saying that in terms of ISL, that it is linguistic development? Okay, so , when we’re talking about linguistic development, and this is, I think this is a very big gap for hearing educators, that we are actually assessing them on their linguistic development in English, which can’t be on a par, because you need to hear the English language. And I don’t know if I’m explaining this properly. So I’d love you to explain for me, but they are two different things, we cannot put linguistic development and ISL on the same level as a deaf person’s linguistic and I don’t even know if it is linguistic development of spoken English, if I’m correct with my, my terms.

Senan Dunne  32:57

Yeah. I think, you know, in terms of language development, and all the different stages of language development, you’re right. Often, quite often, or you know, in the past and Department of Education, they would leave out the language aspect of assessment and focus on things like, you know, what, what do you call it? They will do like IQ tests, what were they called? There were no there were non nonverbal assessments. So that means it was like visual, they would look at pictures and have to look at sequences and see if they could get it, but they never tested the verbal part of it, because the variation in the diversity was just too wide, they would leave out the verbal part of those kinds of assessments and look at  the nonverbal practical. What isn’t mentioned as well is the difference in the like a group children at the same age is huge. And in other countries, they already have verbal tests linked with sign language, like in BSL they have when it’s done assessments on that in BSL. But like Elizabeth’s mentioned, you know, if you look at – you see – obviously, because the UK has a much bigger, bigger population, so it’s easier to get them. Get children who are deaf children who have deaf parents and deaf children with hearing parents. And those kids who have deaf parents, their first language would be ISL. So we could see if you know, we were to collect research and data on them and their language development as they would grow up in a home where that has been what their norm is, or what the, you know, the norm references for deaf children growing up in a home with deaf parents and having that as their first language. So I was trained in the UK and  I’m able to do that, but not on ISL. But we would use that as a guide and kind of for a similar thing here, you know, because it is quite similar here as we would be guided by them. And I can do that and adapt it for ISL. We’re working with a speech and language therapist, and they obviously, speech language therapists, have their own assessments to do in English. When I would come in to alongside to do it for ISL and just try and get as much of a clear picture of the child as you can in their language.

Elizabeth Matthews  34:53

Yeah, yeah, it’s that like that whole language and communication space is so it’s so huge because it’s such an important part of children’s early learning. Like I know that when I’m going out to schools, not relating to deaf education at all, when I’m going into school to meet a special education teacher working in a mainstream primary school with all hearing children, I will often be talking to them about the importance of language and communication, because poor language outcomes are more than likely going to have a knock on effect on social emotional development on the child’s literacy skills, because you cannot comprehend what language you do not already have. So if you’re trying to read, you need to know the words in your language. First, it will have an impact on numeracy because you have to be able to read word math problems, you need the language to cognitively work out all of these things. Language is just such a central facet of every child’s development. And as teachers, I think, the importance of a teacher having a good understanding of what a child’s language skill is, is so central to their being able to guide their development. But then we look at Deaf Education. And you know, like that, like, like you were saying, and Senan mentioned as well there that if we don’t have a full picture of what a child’s language is like, because we’re only looking at their, their spoken language attainment, or we’re only looking at their language in English, you’re missing a huge part of that child’s language repertoire. And we use that phrase in the Deaf Education circles now,  this issue of language repertoires, because often, if you go to a deaf education classroom, you may have deaf children who use Irish Sign Language in school, they’re reading English, and they’re going home to a family where they may have a second spoken language, or a second sign language at home. So you could have a deaf child who’s using four languages, but we’re only assessing one of them. And we need in the education system, we need to be equipping teachers, and encouraging teachers to do whatever they can to get a full picture of what a child’s language repertoire is. And one of our last deaf education seminars actually was with Dr. Kate Crow, who’s based in Iceland, but she works in this area of plurilingual deaf children, so deaf children with multiple languages, and that we have that that video is up on our deaf education seminar series website, if any of your listeners want to see that. But again, she encourages getting that full picture, you have to look at all of the languages being used here, because that’s what will give you a good sense of where this child is at and where we need to go next.

Mags  37:33

Absolutely, I mean, as both of you were speaking, what was coming to my mind was, okay, so these students are multilingual. But because of our bias for the spoken English language, we’re only assessing them on that. And actually we’re capping our expectations of what our deaf students can then do, what they can achieve. So we’re creating even more barriers for the deaf students.

Elizabeth Matthews  38:04

Yeah, like, it’s, it’s the barrier is one thing, but also, if you say to a student, that you’re assessing their English, but you never assess their ISL, it suggests that they’re ISL isn’t important. You know, it puts it on a completely different plane. Whereas if you were saying to a child, what you should be doing anyway, if you’re doing assessment that you would give some of that information back to the child so that, you know, these are the areas you’re doing really well in. And these are the things we’re going to work on next. Because we think that you can do even better if you get some help with these areas. But if we’re always concentrating on their, their English, and we never say to them, actually, we’re going to assess you in this language that you’re amazing in. We all like to be assessed in the thing we’re good at.

Senan Dunne  38:43

Yeah, that’s very true. Elizabeth, like I mentioned earlier on, you know, on the work that I would do with speech and language therapists in the school and doing assessments, it’s important to get a full, overall picture of a deaf child and not only focus on like, their ability in English. I know English is obviously important for, you know, for children here, but it’s not the be all and end all for, you know, understanding that everything about a child and their various different avenues, you need to get the full picture. And to be able to offer them supports, and see where there might be some interventions needed or see where we can improve things and see where they already have strengths and where you can use their strengths. They have  one language to strengthen the other language. Ahm so there needs to be that kind of intervention, where you put a place where we can give the children the best chance they can and give these tools to anybody who’s going to be working with this deaf child to provide those interventions or supports.

Mags  39:31

Absolutely, it’s really is just shifting how we think about our deaf students and about ISL as a language and not as a tool. I could ask you at least 20 more questions, but I’m very conscious of time. So I’m going to ask you do you have any recommendations for listeners where we could further own law I mean, listen, for the listeners, I’ll add these to the transcript at the end.

Senan Dunne  40:04

I would always like anybody that’s interested in learning or interested in this area, just keep your mind, keep them keep your mind open. That’s it. You know, it’s okay to be nervous, it’s okay to be afraid, because it’s an area that you don’t know. But like what Elizabeth mentioned earlier on, you know, it’s a good idea, you know, especially anyone that works here you know, just think about, you know, it’s a safe space for learning. And I think 20 or 30 years ago, things were very different to how they are now, because Ireland you know, is a multilingual society. And so ISL give ISL a chance, you know, expose yourself to it, and, you know, learn. Learn, learn some more about it. It’s fascinating.

Elizabeth Matthews  40:38

Yeah, I think taking like as Senan said, like anybody that’s interested in ISL, you know, take a class, you know. I think the Irish Deaf Society run classes around the country. And they’ll probably start again in September, I think they’re finished for the summer months. I have a YouTube channel that’s through my DCU account, Mags I can send that to you. And we have lots of video resources for people that want to maybe start learning a little bit of sign language before they go to their first class. And those resources have all been developed with with deaf Irish sign language teachers. And I think for anyone who’s listening and is interested more in in the academic elements of things, or they, you know, are working with deaf learners, the deaf education seminar series, we have several of those seminars have been recorded. I mentioned Dr. Kate Crowe already, but we’ve also had, we had a wonderful seminar from Ross Herman, who is a speech and language therapist, but she specialises in the area of assessing language specific language impairment FLI in deaf children who use sign language that again, this is a really, really niche area. That how do we how do we realise or how do we assess for language delays and language difficulties when that when we’re separating that out from say, just an expected maybe language delay for a deaf child who has had maybe a delayed identification of their deafness and all of those other reasons? So we have them presentations from her, we’ve had Rachel O’Neill present about early intervention in the Scottish system in the UK. And  I’m going to stop naming people because I’ll forget some of the people that we’ve had. But most of those have been recorded, and they’re available on the website and likes, I’ll send you the link for those. But I think that’s a good place to get some some beginner information, I suppose about what’s happening internationally.

Senan Dunne  42:34

Just to add to that.  Elizabeth mentioned the IDS, they’ve they’ve a website, that’s www dot, Irish -just deaf.ie is essentially the website and they have the linguistics of ISL is there, the information about their classes, but there’s so much information on the website, definitely worth having a look.

Mags  42:56

Brilliant. Thank you. Any final words from either of both of you before we finished today?

Elizabeth Matthews  43:02

Learn some ISIL you’ll not regret it.

Senan Dunne  43:06

That says definitely you won’t regret it. Just learn something new, you know, just keep an open mind.

Mags  43:12

I love that, keep an open mind and learn something new. On that note, I’ll say goodbye to everyone. Thank you so much for joining myself, Elizabeth Sanan and Lisa for talking about all things inclusion. I hope you will join me again soon. Thank you again Sanan and Elizabeth, for sharing with us today.

Elizabeth Matthews  43:33

Thank you.

Senan Dunne  43:34

Thank you

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