AURORA, Colo. (AP) – Anthony Sserunjogi takes his time when he’s communicating. Every word seems to come with forethought; every phrase carries the signs of careful concentration.
It’s no wonder, considering how far the 23-year-old has come in the past four years. A native of Uganda, Sserunjogi made the move from the east African country to the United States in 2008 to live with a brother who’d immigrated to Colorado. The journey carried more than simple culture shock for Sserunjogi, who learned two new languages from scratch after arriving in Colorado.
In addition to developing the passable English he had learned in school, Sserunjogi quickly learned to communicate in a new way, a highly conceptual language that was completely foreign.
“When I came here, I did not know American Sign Language at all,” Sserunjogi said through an interpreter on a recent chilly afternoon at the Marion Downs Hearing Center at the University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora. Speaking in ASL, his hand gestures were confident and his facial expression pensive as he recalled his first lessons in a new language. “In 2008, my doctor told us about the University of Colorado Hospital and that the Marion Downs Hearing Center could help me.”
Sserunjogi, who lost his hearing at the age of 7 after suffering a virulent case of meningitis, started taking ASL classes in Aurora shortly after his arrival in the U.S. In Uganda, he depended on speech reading and speaking to communicate in his native languages of Luganda and Lugwere. Along with the cochlear implant he received after arriving in the U.S., learning ASL opened up a new world of communication for Sserunjogi.
“My audiologist Darcy Strong helped me find classes here,” Sserunjogi said. “She said if I learn ASL, that will help me communicate with deaf people and hard of hearing people. … I agreed with her. I like it.”
It’s a casual statement for an effort that involved so much study and concentration. Rebecca Novinger, the special programs coordinator at the Marion Downs center, taught Sserunjogi’s first ASL classes. Learning the language is difficult enough for a native English speaker, she explained. Learning the two simultaneously posed an unusual degree of difficulty.
“I think that he learned fast for the challenges that he was faced with. It was not only learning ASL, which is challenging in and of itself, but also learning ASL concepts that are based on English concepts,” said Novinger, who also served as Sserunjogi’s interpreter during the interview. “It’s a conceptual language. You really have to figure out what you’re saying and then figure out the right conceptual word to use.”
For Sserunjogi, whose goals include getting a GED before going on to college to study engineering, that effort meant long study sessions, seemingly endless homework assignments and a lot of practice.
“He has always been very motivated, very committed in everything he’s been learning. He has a lot of potential, in general,” Novinger said. “He’s always impressed me with his hard work … He’s always studying next week’s lesson. It’s been very inspiring to watch him learn as much as he’s learned.”
Sserunjogi isn’t likely to dwell on the accomplishments of the past four years. He credits learning ASL with helping him progress in English, he speaks highly of his instructors and the pedagogy at the Marion Downs Center. Still, his prime focus seems rooted in the future, in the college classes he’s planning to take at Front Range Community College, the engineering degree he’ll pursue and the friends he’ll meet through a new language.
“Sometimes I miss Uganda – my family, my parents, my sisters, my brothers,” he said. “(But) I decided to come here and stay here. … I like ASL because it will help me, but I don’t have very many deaf friends yet.”
Just like his progress in ASL, that’s a step that will come with time for Sserunjogi.
– By ADAM GOLDSTEIN, Aurora Sentinel
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