Chilean Juan Luis Marin-Claro guiding others to a second language through signing at long-running UND SIL


Amy Halvorson

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Chilean Juan Luis Marin-Claro guiding others to a second language through signing at long-running UND SIL

Juan Luis Marín-Claro mentors SIL students. Photos by Jackie Lorentz.

Juan Luis Marín-Claro knows a lot about language barriers.

In fact, the native of Santiago, Chile, who is currently on his first visit to America, is tackling two major communication challenges as a student at the University of North Dakota's Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). Aside from being deaf, he comes from a country where Spanish is the spoken language.

Spanish is Marín-Claro's second language. His native language is Chilean Sign Language (LSCh).

Marín-Claro came to SIL at UND to teach LSCh to students in SIL's "Second Language Acquisition course, where a mix of hearing and deaf students, as as well as auditing professionals, each with varying degrees of knowledge of American Sign Langage (ASL), learn Marín-Claro's native language.

Marín-Claro, who's formal title at SIL is "language nurturer," teaches elementary age children Chilean Sign Language (LSCh) for his career back in Chile.

"The opportunity to come here and learn has been so amazing and exhausting," said Marín-Claro through SIL at UND interpreter Sara Cavaletto.

Marín-Claro has hit the ground running, despite any communication challenges.

Since coming to UND in June, Marín-Claro has developed a firmer grasp on ASL, and is able to communicate effectively with the other staff and students.

He participates as a sign language model or "nurturer" in lab sections with students learning ASL at a variety of different levels. He is also researching the differences between ASL and LSCh, as well as auditing three other classes, all of which he finds fascinating.

"I had no idea there was so much involved in sign language, even with just the parts of your hand," said Marín-Claro.

He hopes to go back to Chile and promote respect for deaf people and to advocate for the deaf community to be proud of their language.

"Here (North Dakota) people are more respectful of diversity, here there are deaf and hearing people who know sign language. People will sign even if they can hear. In Chile, they only sign when they are talking specifically to me," said Marín-Claro. "I hope to change the culture in Santiago based off of what I've seen here."

SIL at UND is a truly unique experience for its participants. It is one of only 32 schools around the world that offer SIL-type training, in addition to being one of the largest. As many as 120 students and 80 staff members, from all over the world, participate in SIL at UND. Each brings their own experiences and differing perspectives for the benefit of others at the institute.

For more than 60 years, each summer, the UND campus has become a gathering point for SIL.

SIL, an international organization which operates the institute at UND, sends people trained in linguistics (the study of languages) to places around the world to work with minority languages. It assists with Bible translations, as well as working with the local people and help them develop and strengthen their native languages. They do this by helping develop dictionaries, descriptions of the grammar, an alphabet and literacy materials.

Participants come to UND, often with their families, to study linguistics.

SIL at UND usually is run out of Smith Hall, a residence hall on campus. There, the staff live alongside the students and develop friendships rather than typical teacher/student relationships. SIL at UND also provides child care while parents are at class.

Through SIL at UND, students are able to further connect to UND and advance their formal education by receiving their master's degree in linguistics from UND.

SIL also is responsible for running UND's Linguistics Program, and they share faculty members.

"It brings a lot of people to campus who wouldn't otherwise be here," said Albert Bickford, SIL at UND Director. "It helps connect UND internationally."

Holly O'Neill contributed to this article.

Amy Halvorson University & Public Affairs student writer

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