Thursday, October 13, 2011

ASL, the Deaf Community, and Me

I was going to hold off on this blog subject, but since I officially started my first ASL class today, it seems like a good time for a post about it.

An introduction to ASL:

ASL is American Sign Language. I am new to the subject so most of my knowledge is academic. Just so we are on an even playing field though, here are some interesting things you need to know about sign language:

- Sign Languages are all foreign languages. While most signers also speak their local verbal language while they sign (English for me), each sign language has its own syntax and grammar that is different from spoken languages.  Often you can take a sign and write it's rough English equivalent, but you can do that with Chinese too. Also remember, some signs have multiple meanings based on their syntax and usage. 

- Closely linked to (and most people would say a part of) sign language is finger spelling. That is using simple hand signs to denote letters of the alphabet. This is useful for proper names and signing anything there isn't a sign for. It acts like a bridge between spoken and signed language, but it very commonly used in ASL. Words are spelled in the local language (or the language the signer knows), so ASL finger signs in English usually, but in Europe you might use the same letters to sign in French or Spanish. Different regions also have different finger spelling alphabets.

- There are many different sign languages in the world and they aren't universal. While both the US and England speak English, the British Sign Language (BSL) is much different. ASL is closely related to French Sign Language due to its origins and is used in several countries. Individual countries and regions around the world might have their own sign languages. Here is a list.

- Even within ASL there are regional lexicons and dialects. People might make the same signs slightly differently. There are also larger regional dialects such as Afro-American Sign Language and Hispanic American Sign Language. 

- Like any language, ASL evolves with use. There are "old words that aren't used anymore" and new words and slang added all the time as needed. For example, Internet, Cell phone, iPhone, and Facebook all have signs. 

- ASL users aren't speaking English. There is another method called Signing Exact English (SEE) that is used to teach English. It is slow and tedious to sign. 

- You might also hear about Pidgin Signed English (PSE) which is not a language. Its more of a compromise for bridging the gap between two people who don't speak the same language.  Signers might use more English language structure and non-signers might make up their own comprehensible signs to try to communicate. 

Deaf Culture:

Something else closely related to ASL is Deaf culture or community since they make up the common group that speaks ASL. It is denoted with a capital "D". The Deaf community tends to view deafness as a different type of human experience, not a disability. When you refer to deafness as a medical condition, you use a lowercase "d" in deaf.

I'll just tell you right now that I have never (and don't currently) considered myself a part of Deaf culture. Although I am learning more about it and have recently begun learning American Sign Language. Perhaps in the future I might feel that connection. 

When my hearing loss was discovered as a child, I was about 8 years old, the decision was made that corrective measure such as hearing aides, sitting close to the teacher in classes, and some other technology along with speech therapy and monitoring would allow me to just integrate into a normal classroom and society. It worked for the most part, but mostly because I was very smart and nerdy anyway. I was often ahead of the learning curve and a great reader. Was it the right decision? I can't say, but maybe someday I'll wax philosophically on the subject. 

It does mean that now that I am in my mid-30's and losing more hearing, I am finding things like ASL to be useful tools in communicating. My wife and I already use simply phrases to help speed up communication, especially in noisy places. 

It also means that now it is hard for me to hear spoken language and I don't understand many signs yet so I am at a disadvantage in both languages. My ASL teachers have to be slow and patient and often spell out what a sign means. 

The Teachers:

Speaking of teachers, my first ASL teacher turned out to be the older sister of one of my daughter's preschool friends. They go to different schools now, but we made friends with her family by going to all the same birthday parties and school events. Now we keep up with Facebook and random encounters around the community. While we were at the wedding of a mutual friend, their oldest daughter V (who is in high school) said she had learned ASL from a deaf friend of hers (who I'll call K) and would be happy to teach me as well. 

So my first several ASL lessons were from a high school cheerleader. Life and relationships are funny sometimes. In fact she also interprets songs into ASL (the sign language is more artistic and sweeping) and posts videos online. She gave me permission to share them on the blog. You can watch her awesome interpretative signing on her Youtube Channel.

Her friend K and an adult ASL interpreter named Sarah are starting an after school class once a week for the rest of the school year. One or both of my daughters might go with and they seem to be picking up ASL about as fast as I am. My wife might have to miss it for nap time with my toddler, we shall see, but I'll be going to that regularly. My wife wants to learn too, which is great, because it pointless for me to know it if I can't talk to people using it. If I study and practice, read a few books, and talk with the few friends I know that use ASL... I might just be proficient by the end of the year. Maybe enough that instead of getting a captionist I might just be able to use an ASL interpreter. 

A Little Fun with ASL:

I can still communicate verbally, but ASL has proven to be a useful tool, especially in noisy public situations. It's a different way to communicate though. 

Since it is visual, your ability to communicate is only limited by your ability to see. You can carry on conversations across crowded rooms and large fields without losing much clarity. 

However, with ASL, there is no being discreet. While you can use it like a foreign language to talk about things privately without having to worry about people overhearing your whispers, if anyone does know ASL in the vicinity, they can also eavesdrop without any effort on any conversation you have. So it should be interesting to see how we use this new tool. Also, it doesn't work in the dark at all, so that still doesn't help with me not being able to communicate in the dark (such as waking up in the middle of the night, dark car, etc). 

I'll give updates as I have them, but for the most part, remember I'll just be quietly taking classes for the next year. If you know ASL, feel free to talk and quiz me when you see me.  


"American Sign Language University" is a large collection of ASL resources and practice aids for students and teachers.

App for ASL finger signing practice

Underneath the horrible site design are a number of really great ASL learning tools.

News and entertainment in ASL video format.

1 comment:

  1. The more tools, the better. :) I think it is totally cool that you're learning ASL. Since I learned PSE, I can only help with vocabulary, but hey, I love to sign. Just because you sign does not mean you have to stop talking... In fact since I can't see your signs sometimes, talking is probably a plus. ;)


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