Sign of Understanding

Senior Brandon Lee spent his semester “abroad” focused on deaf education

Brandon Lee

Spending a semester away from Tufts usually means a jaunt to London or Paris or even Accra, Ghana or Hangzhou, China. Brandon Lee, A11, took a different route. He traveled to a different world, complete with its own language and culture, right here in the United States.

Lee, a child development major, spent last semester as a student at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the only school in the world devoted solely to deaf and hard-of-hearing students and where all classes are taught in American Sign Language (ASL). Lee had studied ASL at Tufts for three semesters, but wanted more. He decided that immersion was the way to go, since ASL “is an integral part of deaf culture,” he says.

Lee’s decision to study ASL was born of his own experience speaking Mandarin at home in California. “I grew up bicultural and bilingual,” he says. “Having a language as a key to culture really stuck with me.”

While some hearing people think ASL is merely English with a lot of pointing, it is, in fact, “a full language with its own grammar and syntax,” says Lee, who hopes to go on to graduate school and make a career in deaf education. “It opens a door to a whole culture and a way to express yourself.”

George Scarlett, deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, notes that Lee is the third Tufts student to study at Gallaudet. “Brandon’s semester at Gallaudet not only expresses a lot about his commitment to deaf education, but also about the ASL program here at Tufts and how it makes such opportunities possible,” he says.

Unexpected Lessons

At Gallaudet, Lee found himself in a different world. Dorms there have light switches outside for visitors to flip on and off, so residents know someone wants to come in. All classes are capped at 20 students so they can sit in a semi-circle and be able to see and sign to each other for questions and discussions. Classes are videotaped so students can watch the class again if necessary.

Lee found himself taking better notes in class. “Usually I write everything down and don’t think that much until later, when I review it,” he says. But because his hands were busy signing, he was more selective and thoughtful about what he chose to put in his notebook.

His fellow students were friendly and lively, though sometimes quite direct, he says. People asked him very personal questions, engaging in the kind of direct behavior that he says is a feature of deaf culture. It took some getting used to. “It’s different from our [hearing] culture, where people dance around things,” he says.

He also found his new friends inventive and quite adept in a hearing world. If he joined a group for dinner at a restaurant, for example, his companions would order by texting what they wanted on a cell phone, which they held up to the waiter.

Lee wasn’t the only hearing person at Gallaudet; the school offers graduate programs in audiology and speech/language pathology for hearing students. There are also some hearing undergraduates, known as HUGS, who have to be fluent in ASL to attend. The visiting student program in which Lee participated requires ASL proficiency as well. All the hearing students are respectful of their deaf friends and use only sign language in their company, he says.

Lee took two ASL classes, a course in deaf culture, ASL linguistics and a history of Latin America. All were taught in ASL. While he doesn’t yet give himself credit for being fluent, there’s no question his Gallaudet experience improved his skills. “It wasn’t until I was a couple of months into Gallaudet that I felt comfortable. Now I can get by pretty well.”

Was Gallaudet quiet all the time? Hardly. Lee’s next-door neighbor in the dorm blasted Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” over and over every night until 3 a.m. Lee says many deaf people like music with a lot of bass because they can feel the vibration.

Now back at Tufts, Lee continues to work at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Allston, where he is teaching Lego robotics to deaf students. He also attends events for the deaf, such as a poetry festival and meet-ups.

He says his experience at Gallaudet has permeated his life in ways he hadn’t expected. He grins when he notes that he now tends to use his hands more when he speaks and finds himself saying ASL phrases that are puzzling when used as part of the English language. For example, “true-biz” means “seriously,” and “touch-finish” can mean “I’ve been there, done that.”

Lee found himself using those phrases in a job interview, along with making the signs for those phrases. “I didn’t get the job,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know if that’s why.”


Marjorie Howard can be reached at


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