Nicholas Lalanne

DATE: Tuesday, September 30, 2014

"ASL is a visual language. It's designed for people to see it. It has its own rules of grammar. Most grammar is done on the face, by facial expressions and body language."

Nicholas Lalanne

By Ronni Gordon

In college, Nicholas Lalanne majored in computer information systems, a field in which he had expected to work.

But he found that his passion lay in teaching the language that had opened the world up to him as a Deaf child: American Sign Language, or ASL. 

"It's a beautiful language because it's so expressive," Lalanne said through interpreter Debra Geoffroy.

"You can show emotion, you can create stories, you can create poetry, " he said.

Lalanne, an instructor at HCC since 2010, teaches four levels of ASL. He also teaches Deaf Studies, in which students enhance their knowledge of ASL and study Deaf culture, based on shared language, values, and history. 

"The capital 'D' shows that people have Deaf pride, that they don't worry about not hearing," Lalanne said.

An interpreter is present in the Deaf Culture class, but not in ASL. "It's just me and the students," Lalanne said. Teaching tools include Power Points and workbooks containing DVDs.

He said ASL classes are a mix of hearing and Deaf students. Some take ASL to fill a foreign language requirement, some have Deaf friends or relatives, some might want to be interpreters, and some are Deaf students who want to improve their fluency in ASL.

Lalanne grew up in Brooklyn, one of six children of Haitian immigrants. Everyone else in the family was hearing, and it took years to find out why he didn't understand what was going on around him. Having been placed in the wrong school, he felt alone and isolated.

After an audiologist determined that he was deaf, Lalanne went to schools for the Deaf, ultimately graduating from Gallaudet University, the leading university for the Deaf and hard of hearing.

Other forms of communication besides ASL are imprecise, according to Lalanne. He said lip reading conveys only 30 to 40 percent of what is said, while  "manually coded English," based on the English word order, does not convey concepts or the multiple meanings of words.

His hands dancing in the air, his expression changing, Lalanne said, "ASL is a visual language. It's designed for people to see it. It has its own rules of grammar. Most grammar is done on the face, by facial expressions and body language. You shift your body into different positions."

"You can see the grammar on my face," he said. Depending on how it is signed, one English word might have several meanings, just as intonation changes the meaning of a word in Chinese.

Lalanne, 39, lives in Putney, Vt., with wife Rebecca and their three daughters, ages 4 and 2 and a newborn. His wife is also Deaf, while their children are hearing; their 4-year-old communicates with them in ASL and speaks English.

He also teaches at the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Brattleboro, Vt., and at the Community College of Vermont in Rutland, Vt., as well as at Springfield Technical Community College.

"I really enjoy teaching ASL," he said. "The students are like little seeds. I add water and they get a little sunshine, and then they grow."