Masks alter how language classes can learn and operate


On Aug. 26, a statewide mask mandate was reinstated in Illinois due to the rise of the COVID-19 Delta variant. While masks historically have been worn to stop the spread of diseases, never before have masks been as strictly and widely mandated as they are today. Thankfully, both nationwide and in Evanston, masks and vaccines have allowed us to regain many aspects of pre-pandemic life. Thanks to health precautions, ETHS has already made it through 25% of a school year while maintaining a relatively low number of cases. However, one area in which masks have had unforeseen effects is in the learning of languages. This effect is even more severe for the hard-of-hearing and deaf communities. 

“Because you’re not using the voice to sign, you’ve got to use eyebrows to show questioning or intonation with your mouth,” American Sign Language (ASL) teacher Emily Kulacz states.

Since American Sign Language is a nonverbal language, facial expressions are vital to expressing tone the way a person would with their voice in a verbal language. Facial expressions are also important for context clues. If a hard-of-hearing individual with some residual hearing understands part of what someone has said, facial expressions can provide some context to fully decipher what was said, such as a smile expressing pleasure or a frown expressing sorrow.

lip-reading, a method of understanding speech by observing mouth movements, has also been impacted by the mask mandate. 

“I don’t lip read fully. It’s impossible to do so. My auditory processing disorder causes certain sounds to sound the same. I use lip-reading to reduce that confusion. I also cannot hear people in loud environments with many overlapping sounds, which is another reason why I lip read,” senior Tami Schneiderman states.

While only 40 percent of spoken English can be accurately understood by lip-reading, as reported by the CDC, lip-reading provides a way for hard-of-hearing people to better comprehend language without signing. 

Masks completely obscure people’s mouths, which has made lip-reading nearly impossible for those with hearing loss. Students like Schneiderman have had to find new methods to be able to compensate for the lack of lip-reading. 

“Look at me when speaking, as that directs the sound towards me and allows me to see their body language. As well as articulating and enunciating well, having conversations with me in quiet environments and understanding that I may need things repeated multiple times [helps],” Schneiderman says. 

Adjusting to these behaviors can help individuals with hearing loss better understand and interpret language without lip-reading. Clear masks also offer a solid option, since they don’t obscure any part of the face. 

Masks have also affected how we are able to communicate with people on a daily basis. Many people have struggled to adjust to talking to people because of the extra effort it takes while wearing a mask. Something people are still getting used to during the pandemic is understanding what others are saying, and the tone they are saying it in, without the ability to look at facial expressions. 

“I think facial expressions are important because they are a big part of language, a big part of communication,” Spanish teacher Kathleen Sullivan says.

Teaching students a new language during the pandemic has also been a challenge for many teachers. 

“The biggest challenge in the language I teach has been not knowing for sure if I’m heard,” Sullivan states. 

A lot of people have been struggling with knowing if they are heard or not throughout the pandemic, as masks muffle what they say and make it difficult for others to understand what they are saying at times. Repeating oneself can be a challenge and something that can become frustrating. 

Another thing that people have had to do because of the way that masks muffle your voice is speak at a higher volume. Raising their voices can become tiring and hard for teachers to do all day.

Not only do facial expressions play a role in how we communicate while speaking a language we are used to, but they are also important while learning a new language. 

“When teaching the alphabet in Spanish, there are certain shapes that you make with your mouth that maybe you don’t make with your mouth like in English, so it’s been harder to do that with a mask,” Sullivan says. 

Different types of learners are having different experiences with the mask mandate. Students that do better with written instructions are generally having an easier time now that teachers are trying to avoid long periods of speaking, whereas students who need verbal instructions, clarifications or don’t learn as well through reading may be struggling or having a difficult time with the reduction in spoken lessons from teachers. 

While the mask mandate has caused many new obstacles to arise, it’s still important to remember the crucial reason we’re wearing them. ETHS has been able to make it through roughly 20 percent of the school year already with no large outbreaks of COVID-19 because of the high number of vaccinated students and because of wearing masks. Masks protect the population from COVID-19 and the prevalent Delta variant, so while it’s created new challenges, wearing masks and wearing them correctly is essential to the health and safety of others.