German sign language – Resources and tips

August 29, 2012

Did you know that not all countries in the world share a universal sign language? Today’s post is in honour of my friend, Meike Thomesen, who is the Assistant Principal at Bowcroft Elementary, Calgary’s only German bilingual school. Meike just came back from an intensive training program for in-service German teachers. The course was held in Germany. Part of their training involved PD to teach the German language to children by complementing the spoken language with sign language. What a super idea!

If you teach German, here are some resources to help you learn about German sign language:

DGS Korpus – A corpus of German sign language texts. This is a long-term project of the Academy of Sciences in Hamburg for documenting and researching the German Sign Language (DGS).

Basic German sign language – You Tube video with English sub-titles

German Sign Language Numbers – YouTube video

AlphaDictionary – A very cool, multilingual sign language resource site


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Stroke robs man of multilingual abilities

August 10, 2011

Here’s an interesting (and heart wrenching) article about a multilingual Edmonton man who lost all of his languages after a stroke. In the Globe and Mail article, Abdul Kamal reports that, “In the aftermath of the stroke, I lost all the languages I knew – English, French, German, Urdu and Bengali. I could neither read and write nor speak and comprehend.”

Kamal is a retired professor of physics at the University of Alberta who enjoyed physics, writing, travelling, sports, theatre before his stroke, but has been unable to take part in his favorite activities.

Determined to get his speech back, he reports, “Undaunted, I rounded up my own children’s books along with picture and alphabet cards and launched an uphill battle against my formidable foe – aphasia. David drove me to the Glenrose Hospital twice a week to learn English under the tutelage of a speech pathologist.” That was ten years ago, he states. From there, he progressed from working with a speech pathologist to group language learning sessions for aphasics (people who have lost their speech due to a stroke), and working with graduate students at the University of Alberta who were working with aphasics as part of their research and academic training.

Now, at age 75, Kamal offers a message of hope to others who have lost their speech due to a stroke:

After I had the stroke, a speech pathologist told me that I would show improvements in all my mental faculties over the following year and a half. However, at 75, I’m still learning. My speech, comprehension of spoken language and syntax are still improving, albeit slowly. The message is that if you challenge the brain, it will respond. Although at a certain age our memory bank starts to deplete, I’m sanguine about the future.

Kamal’s story reminds us to value the abilities we have to speak one, two or more languages. And when self-doubt or feelings of inadequacies fill us that we are not doing enough, not good enough or not as fluent or as perfect as we would like to be, we are reminded to celebrate the abilities that we have today and commit to the lifelong process of learning, no matter where we may fall on the continuum of proficiency.

Thank you, professor Kamal, for the inspiration.

Read the whole article.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Spanish, French, German and ASL: Most Popular Languages Taught in US

December 8, 2010

Dan Berrett’s article, “Getting Their Babel On” (Inside Higher Ed, Dec. 8, 2010) shares the results of a study conducted by the Modern Language Association (MLA) in terms of university students in the US studying foreign languages. Here are the highlights:

  • The rate at which students took foreign language courses in 2009 remained constant, compared to three years prior.
  • The number of enrollments in language courses grew from 1.57 million in 2006 to 1.68 million in 2009, or 6.6 percent. However, the total number of enrollments in undergraduate courses as a whole also increased. In simple terms this means that language courses account for 8.6 of every 100 course enrollments in post-secondary institutions. That number has remained the same since 2006.
  • Of every 100 undergraduate degrees earned, 1.16 of them are in foreign languages.
  • 70 % of undergrad degrees in foreign languages are earned by women.
  • The most popular languages to study (aside from English, which is not considered a “foreign” language in the US) are Spanish, French, German, and American Sign Language, in that order.
  • American universities teach a total of 232 different languages.
  • Arabic boasted the highest increases in enrollments last year, with a 46% increase over the three previous years.
  • Graduate program enrollments in languages have dropped by 6.7 percent since 2006.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

Interview with Meike Thomsen: Leading by Example Series

August 23, 2010

This series is dedicated to highlighting the impact made by exemplary literacy and language professionals who lead by example. They share their inspirational tips and stories. This week I’m delighted to showcase a teacher in a German bilingual program, who inspires young learners to study German, and also mentors her fellow teachers as part of her professional practice.

What is your name, affiliation, and connection to language learning?
My name is Meike Thomsen and I’m the learning leader for the first German Bilingual Junior High Program within the public Calgary Board of Education. The program welcomes its first students in September 2010. Previously, you could find me in the same capacity in the German Bilingual elementary school of the CBE. In a bilingual school, mathematics is taught in the target language. It is my luck (and the students’)  that I love mathematics and have been working with teachers on improving math pedagogy for the past 2 years before ‘rejoining’ the German Bilingual program at the Junior High level; ordering all their resources, library collection and determining which German Math book suits our Alberta curriculum best.

What are your thoughts about leadership and language learning?
It is my strong belief that every person should speak at least two languages and should have travelled at least once for an extended period of time to a country where the language is spoken. If we are looking at gaining world peace, we need to be able to understand each other. In order to understand another culture, we have to be able to communicate in their language and need to have lived within the culture for at least a year to truly understand it.

This is the reason why all European countries encouraged the exchange of youth between cities after World War II. The city I grew up in had a ‘sister city’ in England. Every year teenagers from my city went to visit there for 2 weeks and then the British youth would come and visit us for 2 weeks. The reasoning behind? You don’t fear what you know  You also don’t want to fight a war with a nation you have visited.

Here is an example that struck me when I learned of it: During World War II an American General was ordered to bomb one of the oldest German cities (Rothenburg op de Tauber). He couldn’t bring himself to do this, because he had visited this city as a young man and new of its historical importance. This city still has original parts dating back to the 11th century. Thanks to this general, this part of German history is alive today, because he had a personal connection to Rothenburg and knew what it would mean to destroy a city like that.

In your opinion, what’s the most important aspect of a language teacher’s job?
Engagement! People who learn a second language need to be engaged and they need to understand the importance of learning a second language. In the literature review of my thesis, I have a whole section on what the benefits of second language learning are.

While adult learners usually have a very specific reason for learning a second language, children and youth need to have fun doing it. Singing, puppet plays, watching German movies and having a German pen pal (email pal) are just a few things that will engage them in learning.

The second important aspect of a language teacher is the ability to teach the culture of the other country in a way that shows children/adults that our cultures do share some commonalities, but that there are distinct differences and… this is what they are. Personal space is a major one. Our personal bubble is much bigger here in Canada than in a lot of other countries. What is considered rude or polite? What is considered harassment? To teach cultural awareness is important and can be a lot of fun.

What are some of the projects you’ve been involved with that you would like to share?
The biggest project was my research in regards to my thesis: “The Sustainability of the German Bilingual Program in Calgary”. One of the most interesting (and frustrating) experiences was that parents had complained to me about not having a voice and not getting input … yet when I was looking for research participants (a survey and a focus group) not many were forthcoming. It took me 3 different attempts and approaches to get a sufficient numbers of parents to complete the initial survey.

What do you see as three new directions in language learning?
Thanks to the evolution in technology, the interactive part of language learning has become much easier. Teachers can find teachers in the target language’s country, connect, and then connect their students. Skype is free and kids can talk to each other, using the language they are learning. It makes the language come alive and removes it from the sterility of the classroom and the textbook. Using Skype also allows the students to use their hands, body and signs to help with communications – a phone call relies exclusively on words, which is much harder for beginners.

Today, we encourage students to speak – no matter how bad the grammar might be. This is a change in attitude and is still hard for the students to do. When I learned English, our instructors encouraged us to write down the sentence and ‘get it perfect’ before trying to speak … which resulted in very stilted and not natural conversations.


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Want to change the world? Learn a language (Part 1 of 2)

April 29, 2010

In the movie Dead Poet’s Society (1989), the fictional English teacher, Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, tells his class of adolescent boys, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” It’s a notion that I’ve shared with my second language students on many occasions. I tell them that by learning a second language (or a third or a fourth or a fifth), they learn new ways of understanding not only themselves, but the world around us.

The challenges of learning another language are immense. There’s vocabulary to be acquired, grammar to master and verb conjugations to memorize. All of this information and more must be internalized, synthesized and then reproduced spontaneously as interactive speech. It’s an enormous feat. And it’s an enormous feat that millions have undertaken.

But to what end? We like to tell our students that their job prospects are better if they learn other languages. But are they really? I live in an affluent area of Canada, where young men (and women, though far fewer of them), can leave high school early and go north to work on oil rigs or in the towns that support the oil business. They can make cash, and lots of it, quickly. It’s hard work, under intense conditions. Yet thousands of them do it. Try telling them that if they learn a second language their job prospects are going to be better. They’ll scoff, turn around and drive away in a shiny new truck, that’s been fully paid for in cash.

So, the job prospect line doesn’t really fly very well where I live.

Travelling to other countries? There are plenty of tourist areas in the world where the locals have thrown themselves into learning the language of the tourists precisely to make them feel more welcome. People can travel to resorts all over the world and be served by locals who speak their language. In fact, I’ve heard people say, “Why should I learn their language when they’ll learn mine?”

So, the travelling argument seems a bit hollow, too.

What’s the real reason we believe so strongly that learning another language is important? It’s what that fictional character, Keating said, “because words and ideas can change the world.” When we commit ourselves to learning another language, we challenge ourselves to dig deep into ourselves to tap into our own power to communicate with others, to reach out, to connect.

When we take the plunge and test our communicative skills in another language, we reach inside and overcome our fears of making mistakes, fear of being rejected by others, fear of not being good enough, fear of not fitting in. We try anyway. We connect, however imperfectly, and that leads to wanting to understand more, learn more and discover more.

As we learn other languages we also learn about other cultures, other people, other faiths, other ways of living and being and looking at the world. We find our own sense of who we are profoundly enriched and deepened in ways we could not have otherwise imagined.

It’s hard to explain this to someone who doesn’t believe there’s any value in learning other languages. There are those who will never be convinced. Rather than trying to implore them with hollow arguments that are hard to back up, instead, we can offer concrete examples of individuals who changed the world by learning other languages. Here are some examples:

Albert Einstein. He was born in Switzerland and spoke German as his first language. (Anecdotally, I am told that he did not speak at all until he was five years old.) He learned English as a Second Language.

Nelson Mandela. His first language was Xhosa, an African dialect. He learned English as a Second Language.

Mohandas Gandhi. His first language was Gujarati. He went on to learn 10 additional languages.

Rigoberta Menchu. Her first language was Quechua, an indigenous language of her native Guatemala. As I understand it, she learned Spanish in order to give her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize which she was awarded in 1992.

Critics would argue that all of these public figures learned a language of the dominant population and would go on to discuss issues of power and oppression. My aim here is not to enter into such a discussion, but merely to point out that the work that these individuals did would not have been possible if they had not learned other languages.

That is a bold statement and I stand behind it. Let me repeat it: the work these influential people did would not have been possible if they had not learned other languages. Why? Because learning other languages gave them opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations, connect with others and do the work that they were so deeply passionate about a larger scale. They moved beyond the parochial into the global. They transcended personal, political, scientific and historical boundaries. With their words and ideas they changed the world.

When we learn other languages, we change who we are. We grow to understand and appreciate the world around us in new and meaningful ways. As we change, so the world changes. That’s the real reason we believe in the power of learning other languages. Because when we do, we learn to reach out to others, connect deeply and express our passion for life and our life’s work in profoundly transformative ways.

Related posts:


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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