It's a whole new language (with their hands)

CORONA DEL MAR — Practicing a language isn't only about working on the right accent or rolling the tongue to make an "r" sound.

While most language classes are filled with cultural dances and foods, as well as the idea of visiting exotic locales, American Sign Language's cultural aspect is limited in comparison.

Instead, the students get a chance to go behind the curtain of the deaf community and find out that they aren't so different from them.

"Deaf people can do anything other people can do, but hear," said junior Nicole Roberts, 18, who is taking the beginning course.

Corona del Mar High School started offering the language — in addition to French, Spanish and Latin — in 2006 and is the only school in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District to do so. The school offers levels one and two, and level three through Coastline Community College.

"Sign language is becoming more accepted, and college and high schools are accepting it as a language," said American Sign Language teacher Tammy Owney.

Students learn the language just like any other class, but there is no conjugation, writing or reading, Owney said.

The language, though, still has rules, syntax and grammar, just like every other language, Owney added.

It was the lack of conjugation along with her older sister having taken the class that inspired freshman Ashley Meyers, 15, to sign up. It also seemed easier at first, she said.

"The kids will say it's easier, but it's not," Ashley said. "It's just different."

The class introduces the students to the deaf community through visits with deaf guests, outside-school activities and an introduction to its similarities and differences. The students also pepper Owney with questions — such as do deaf people dance at parties or have boyfriends.

Owney worked with deaf high-school students for nine years, translating everything from English and history classes to football practice. She has her degree in deaf studies from Cal State Northridge.

"If you think about it, they're just normal people," Owney said. "They just can't hear."

The students also get an idea of what it is like to be hard of hearing, if only briefly.

During activities each student wears earplugs that block out about 60% of sound, which forces them to use sign language, Owney said.

Students use them for about 20 minutes at a time, but for some the silence is too much and they go crazy, she said.

"It makes them realize how it is to be hard of hearing," she said.

"Now, I realized there's nothing wrong with people with disabilities," Ashley said.

While the students are being introduced to the deaf community, it's also a lesson in tolerance for all types of students.

The highly visual form of communication lends itself well to high-functioning autistic students and those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Owney said.

It gives her typical students interaction with other students who have a range of learning styles and social skills, she said.

"Sign language clicks a lot with these types of brains because it's visual," she said.

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