Saturday, July 31, 2010
As an ASL teacher and as a deaf person in general, I’ve found that almost all of the people I encounter who are wanting to learn American Sign Language go into it with unrealistic expectations. They all expect to take a series of classes and then be able to venture out into the Deaf community and converse in sign with little or no effort. And this goes both ways, meaning they expect to be able to relay their messages in sign language and they expect to be able to comprehend all of the messages relayed to them in the signed response.
For a while I thought that the only reason for this was that people assumed that learning sign language would be easier than learning a new spoken language. Many think of sign as simply drawing pictures in the air. Sure, they’ll admit there’s some things you must know the formal sign for, but that should be easy to pick up, right? It’s a primitive language – ones cavemen used – and, therefore, should be self-explanatory and easier to pick up than, say, German.
A lot of people actually believe that. I think that’s because many people generally view ASL as mime or gesturing being the main point, so, I mean, how hard can it really be? It’s like this grand game of charades. When they then go in and decide they’re going to learn it “formally,” it’s hard for them to realize that they’ve had the wrong idea.
I had thought that the idea of thinking that learning a new language would be easy was only usually applied to learning sign language, but then I asked my husband. He said that it often applied to spoken languages as well. When he decided to learn Spanish so that he could readily interact with the people he encountered at the airport (where he works), he signed up for a community class—excited by the prospect of being able to chat with other Spanish-speaking people when the class was finished. He believed that he would have a basic grasp of the language by the end of the class. And when the class ended and he took what he learned with him to work, he was frustrated that he still struggled to interact with the Spanish-speaking community.
I think it’s human nature. People want to know what they want to know and they want to know it at that very moment. Whether it’s how to speak a language, how to play a sport, or how to work the new computer or television, people (generally speaking) don’t have a whole lot of patience. So, when they get the notion to learn a new language, they don’t expect it to be as difficult as it really is.
One common tendency is to take the new vocabulary words you’ve learned and put them in a sentence using the word order of the language you already know…such as the common method of signing American Sign Language signs in English word order. It’s one factor of language learning that truly is a challenge—learning new grammatical rules and sentence structure.
Another struggle is understanding that there is no one way of expressing something. In English when you want to say something, there are many ways to word it. For example:
“I can’t believe that stupid guy over there is giving me a dirty look!”
“There is an annoying man sitting over there who keeps giving me a dirty look and it’s ticking me off!”
“Why is he glaring at me? It’s bugging me!”
“If that guy doesn’t stop staring at me, I’m going to get very upset!”
You get the idea.
Just as English ideas can be phrased various ways and get the same point across, so, too, can ASL. There is no one specific way things absolutely must be worded. You’re learning a language; you’re not taking a biology class. There is no one answer that is the only right answer. There are nuances that you can only learn through interaction and practice.
Yes, of course you can be taught the vocabulary and grammatical structure. And if you study daily and immerse yourself with other signers (preferably native speakers), you can get a very good grasp of the language in about two years. They say fluency comes around seven to ten years of serious study. But you will always be learning. Always. That goes for any language you learn. Heck, even native English speakers take English courses throughout school, attend workshops on the use of English, and major in English in college. We’re always learning. There is no point where you can say, “OK. Now I know it all.” (Although I do know many people who think they do.)
So try to be patient. Don’t expect so much so fast. It’s a language. It’s not a skill like dancing, where you learn how to step ball change and then never need to learn that again. It’s an ongoing venture. But, and this is a big but, it’s a journey that will lead you through many wonderful experiences.
Don’t be hard on yourself if you’re not able to fully converse with a deaf signer after, say, one 10-week class. That’s unrealistic. There’s simply too much to learn to accomplish it all in one course. You might want to have every possible bit of information crammed into every minute of each class in order to feel you’ve gotten your money and time’s worth. But you have to think about this in a mature manner. Use what you learn. Every day. Go where the signers are (and please remember to go where the skilled signers are and not just a bunch of students who are also just learning). Interact in the Deaf Culture. Become involved. There’s no point in learning a new language if you won’t have anyone to share it with. Man, oh, man! How many students I’ve worked with who have said that they don’t want to go to a Deaf event because they’re scared they won’t be able to communicate. But, you have to. It’s scary, but you have to. Besides, why are you learning it anyway if you’re not going to actually use it with people who need it?
So, will you learn American Sign Language in a few months’ time? No, you won’t. Don’t expect that. With you find, in a group of 5 teachers, that they all teach how to say something in exactly the same way? No. There is no one exact way. But will all of your work be worth it in the end? Absolutely. It’s worth it.
But do me one favor: Once you learn it, put it to good use. That’s all I ask.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Oh, the questions I’ve been asked! In the course of lifetime (which is longer than I’d like to admit), I’ve been asked some doozies. On the happenstance that you’d like to hear a few, I decided to write down the questions I’ve been asked in the past couple of weeks:
- How do deaf people drive?
Exactly the same way hearing people do. You don’t need sound to drive. If that were a fact, then what about hearing people who crank the radio up to blasting or people who chat endlessly on their cell phone? The only thing you really use sound for regularly is sirens and such. But that’s why they also have flashing lights. Hello? A good driver, deaf or hearing, uses his mirrors and stays visually alert. Sound is not a requirement.
- How do deaf people have sex?
Ummm. Would you like a video blog answer to this question?
Or, as comedian and CODA Keith Wann would answer, “The same way hearing people do—loud and sloppy.”
- How do deaf people talk/communicate?
As diversely as the rest of the population. Some of us sign. Some of us lipread and speak. Some of us stand on our heads and blink in Morse Code. Many of us do snappy variations!
- How do deaf people read?
Huh? We go through the same school system as everyone else. We learn to read—given the school system does their job—just like everyone else. But because some deaf children are denied access to a language before they start school (meaning they’re forced to figure out how to speak and “listen” when they can’t hear anything, instead of allowing them to express themselves manually in sign and then be taught English later), they can struggle with reading English.Wouldn't anyone??
Just like hearing people, there are deaf people who are English scholars, deaf people who just read well, and illiterate deafies. But, in general, how do we read? With our eyes and our brain.
- How do deaf people hear music?
Who says we do? There’s absolutely no way of answering that, because it all depends on how much residual (or amplified) hearing a person has as well as their personal likes and dislikes. It’s kind of common sense, here, folks.
- How do deaf people talk on the phone?
Actually, I don’t consider this a stupid question.
There are several different devices for deaf and hard of hearing people to use in order to use a phone. There are amplified telephones, amplifiers to attach to telephones, captioned phones, TTYs/TDDs, videophones, relay systems, etc. Lots of choices. I won’t go into details in this post, but we have a lot of assistive technology in this realm.
- How do deaf people wake up?
Many deaf use vibrating or light-flashing alarm clocks that shake the bed and blink a lamp when it’s time to get up. But that’s just one way.
- How do deaf people clap?
For the former? Get a life.
For the latter? Deaf applause consists of lifting your hands above your head and shaking them. The reason for this is that it’s more visual. It’s customary for people (regardless of hearing status) to clap for a hearing person’s performance and use Deaf applause for a deaf person’s performance. It all depends on the applauder and the applaudee (is that even a word?).
- How do deaf people have their own thoughts?
- How do deaf people hear their own thoughts?
However, that being said, we "hear" our thoughts very clearly. We are able to think our own thoughts and understand what we mean. We’re not imbeciles! How a person “hears” something is individualistic. You’re probably thinking like a hearie and trying to imagine how a deaf person would hear like you. You have to try to think outside the box.
In fact, in this world, when trying to figure out how people different from you can do certain things, you will always have to think outside the box. You have to stop thinking people must do things in the same fashion as you or other people you know. We’re humans. We’re different. And we do different things differently.
- How do deaf people hear in their dreams?
- How do deaf people laugh?
Also, everyone in this world has their own sound when they laugh. Some snort, some guffaw, some giggle, some slobber…you get the idea. So, too, does every deaf person have their own sound when they laugh. I’ve had people talk about how “horrible” deaf people sound when they laugh (I’ve even seen stupid comments about how “hysterical” deaf people sound when they’re having sex). Horrible in whose opinion? Some snot-nosed, cocky jerk, who believes he has the ear of God in deciding what sounds appropriate and what doesn’t? Hmmm. I think it may be vaguely obvious I have an opinion about that.
- How do deaf people write?
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
As defined at http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/oralism:
Oralism: A philosophy of education for the deaf, opposed to manualism, that uses spoken language consisting of lipreading, speech, the process of watching mouth movements, and mastering breathing techniques.
September 6 – 11, 1880, in the city of Milan, Italy, a group of 164 participants attended the 2nd International Congress on Education of the Deaf (ICED). The Milan Conference was organized by the Pereire Society. This society was a strong supporter of oralism. They organized the Milan conference with the intent to ban sign language. And they secured this outcome by carefully selecting who was invited, inviting the delegates to see the oralist success in a local school, and by encouraging negative reactions to those giving speeches supporting sign language and cheering those supporting oralism.
This convention consisted of 87 Italians, 56 Frenchmen, 8 Englishmen, 5 Americans, and 8 other delegates. Not a lot of diverse representation for an “international” meeting. During the conference there were 12 speakers who gave their opinions on the issues connected with deaf education. Nine of the 12 speakers gave an oralist view and 3 supported the use of sign language.
At the meeting, the members voted overwhelmingly to outlaw the use of sign language as a method for educating deaf children, in favor of the pure oral method. The group also opposed a compromise motion to include sign language along with speech. And thus began an attempt to abolish the language of Sign.
The original resolutions passed at this meeting did irreparable damage to deaf individuals, educators, professionals, schools and communities around the world. Thankfully, perhaps due to the fact that Gallaudet College (now University) refused to abandon the use of sign and to the founding of the National Association of the Deaf, ASL has persevered. Regardless of what the extremists and strict oralists believe, ASL is the language of the Deaf and always will be.
I was ecstatic to find that, on Monday, July 19th of this year, the International Congress of the Deaf opened its 21st Congress with a historic announcement that it formally rejects the resolutions passed at the 2nd Congress. This move in part was due to the letters and actions from advocacy organizations and leaders throughout the world urging the ICED to embrace signed languages and deaf cultures.
NAD’s President, Bobbie Beth Scoggins, had this to say about the monumental proclamation:
"We are elated to see that, for the first time in 130 years, the ICED has joined us in rejecting the actions of its predecessors and moving forward to improve educational systems for the global deaf and hard of hearing community. We are grateful and proud to see the ICED take this important and very appropriate step towards reconciliation. The formal rejection of the 1880 resolutions made in Milan by the ICED realizes a dream that we have had for 130 years. Together with the ICED we have taken the first steps towards a beautiful, bilingual future of cooperation and mutual respect."
Here’s to a new and brighter future for our deaf and hard of hearing students! Let’s let them use what works for each, instead of a contrived notion that oralism is the only way!
Sunday, July 25, 2010
“Mom, why is everyone staring at us,” my daughter asked me the other night, as we were eating at Cici’s Pizza.
“I’m guessing they’re seeing us sign to each other and are curious,” I responded.
After all, sign language is such a beautiful language, right? (groan)
Day in and day out, I am inevitably approached by hearing people who claim, “Oh, I wish I knew how to sign. It’s so beautiful!” And it is. I love my language, don’t get me wrong. But, man, oh, man, I just get so tired of having people say it to me. I mean, how many people, when noticing two people speaking, say, Italian, to each other, approach them and try to tell them how beautiful the language is? And come to think of it, how many people in that same situation would go stand within hearing distance and eavesdrop on the two Italians just because “it’s so cool”? Comparatively speaking, I’m betting it is few.
I’m guessing that, because ASL is visual, we get more attention when using it than people who use other foreign languages that are spoken. That’s totally understandable, too. And then there’s the “unusual” factor. Many hearing people have not knowingly encountered a deaf person. So, when they actually get to see one—using their language, no less—it’s captivating. “Wow! It’s an actual, real-live deaf person!”
I suppose I can’t be too judgmental here, because, I’ve done the same thing. When I see people who are “different” than the “norm,” I’m apt to look. I’ve even found myself staring once or twice. Was I embarrassed? Absolutely. Was I wrong? Absolutely.
Although I can understand the curiosity of seeing something that you don’t see often (or possibly have never seen before), it gets so tiring to always BE that thing. I’m sure other groups feel it, too. How many Amish people, when entering a city, get tired of being the center of attention because of the way they’re dressed? How many quadriplegics get frustrated when they attempt to go out with friends and family and everyone in their vicinity wants to watch and see how they do, well, everything? And how many little people become angered because everyone wants to see what they look like and how they accommodate for their size?
It’s no different with us deafies. Just once I would love to go out with my family into a public place and not feel like we’re the Saturday matinee. I feel like I should be selling popcorn, for Pete’s sake. I know it’s beautiful, people. OK? Thank you! But please stop staring!
I think I’ve decided what I’m going to do about this, though. I try to be lucrative, you know. So I’ve decided to start stocking up on disposable cameras. Now, when I do venture out and get as much attention as the five o’clock news, I can simply approach the person(s), hand them one, and charge them ten bucks. Seems fair to me.
Saturday, July 24, 2010
From time to time, people have asked me what kinds of jobs deaf and hard of hearing people can have. Seems many people can’t seem to fathom that a deaf person would be just as employable and beneficial to a job as a hearing person would. Is it that difficult to see that we’re just like hearing people…only without the sound? Never underestimate a person just because they can’t hear you. In most cases, all other faculties work just fine. But I’ll save the “intelligence” conversation for another time.
Fact is, “deaf people can do anything hearing people can, except hear.” That phrase was coined by the first deaf president of Gallaudet University (the only liberal arts university specifically for deaf and hard of hearing students), and is very true. There are deaf individuals in almost all occupations out there…doctors, nurses, lawyers, athletes, entertainers, pilots, architects, veterinarians, administrators, entrepreneurs, journalists, teachers, scientists…everything. The only job skill that would be a huge problem for a deaf worker would be answering the phone.
Here are a few sites specifically created for deaf and hard of hearing workers:
Association of Medical Professionals With Hearing Loss
A resource for Deaf / hard of hearing lawyers and law students
Deaf Pilots Association
Deaf Entertainment Guild
USA Deaf Sports Federation
If you're a deaf or hard of hearing person, take a moment to comment and tell the world your occupation or job and why you do it just as well as (or better than) anyone else.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Last night, as I sat watching, “A Few Good Men” (only THE best court movie ever), I began to realize that I was being gypped. What I was reading on my closed captioning did not match the movement on the speaker’s face. It was almost as if I was viewing an old Japanese movie, where the voice-over ends and the lips keep flapping. I was upset. I felt betrayed. Why wasn’t I being given fully equal access to the dialogue as everyone else? And who was deciding what was important enough to transcribe and what could be left out?
I’m an intelligent person. An educated person. I deserve to be “in the know” as much as anyone else who chooses to watch a television program or view a DVD. I wanted to know who was deciding what I would and would not “hear” the speakers say? Upon finishing my research, I discovered there are a couple of reasons why the captioning and subtitles might not exactly match the script.
- In some occurrences, some bigwig decided that, because people born deaf or early-deafened sometimes struggle with the English language, including reading it, they should dumb down the captions to make it easier to understand for the viewers.
of deaf and hard of hearing society into one category. Phooey!
- Sometimes the reason the captions are altered is because the captionist has to create captions whose reading time syncs with the viewing time of each clip or shot. Because reading time is generally shorter than what is actually being said in a given scene, the captionist is faced with the job to paraphrase what is being said before the scene or shot ends.
Admittedly, this is a good point. I understand that. Many a time I have struggled to follow captions that were flying by at an astronomically fast pace. I’ve even been known to yell at the television set, “Come on! Slow down already!” So, I do recognize that this places the burden of decision on the person doing the captioning or subtitles. Do they include it all, even though the clip is only four seconds long? Or do they paraphrase and leave out “unnecessary” extras, as is often the case?
In my opinion, I would much rather struggle to read the captions at full-speed than have the decision of which words and phrasing will be ignored made by some man or woman who hasn’t a clue who I am. What is this person basing their decisions on, anyway? Maybe that line, “I know what you mean, sir. I know what you mean,” could be phrased “I know what you mean,” and that be the end of it. And maybe they’re exactly right that the rest of that line is inconsequential to the storyline, but I don’t know this. All I know is that what I’ve just finished reading is obviously not exactly what they said, because they’re mouth is still moving. I don’t know what the left-out dialogue was. So, it doesn’t matter to me. I want to know what they said. Word for word. Tell me. If I have to struggle to read it all, I’ll deal with that. But it’s my decision.
- Yet another reason some people believe that captions are snipped here and there is for the movie makers to save money. This is untrue. Captioning companies do not charge by the word. So that “good” argument is out.
Be it right or be it wrong; be it subtle or be it blatant; captionists should not mess with the script. Tell us what they’re saying and what noises are being heard. That’s why we have the captioning turned on in the first place. Acting the part of “God” and deciding what will and will not be relayed is not only disrespectful and condescending, but it’s annoying as all get out, too.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
As I was preparing for my sign language class that was about to begin, two students arrived early. As is usually the case, they each entered, smiled sheepishly and sat down in silence. A few seconds of getting settled and one excitedly begins to speak. Signing awkwardly and speaking at the same time, she begins: “Oh my gosh! I was working on my signing vocabulary last week and you won’t believe what happened!” Becoming excited, she begins to speak at a lightning speed and all semblance of sign language is lost. She and the other student engage in a very animated and enthusiastic discussion while I look on. When she’s finished, she turns me with wide eyes and smiles expectedly. But I haven’t the faintest clue what she’s just said.
I look at her and ask, “So, what exactly happened last week when you were working on your sign vocabulary? It seems exciting.”
“Well, I was …” Again, her frantic behavior and rapid speech made it virtually impossible for me to comprehend any word or sign she uttered.
“Wait!” I stopped her before she went on. “I can’t understand you. You need to slow down. Can you sign it?”
A moment of obvious discomfort later, she shifts in her chair. Finally, she looks up and, with a sympathetic expression, states, “Never mind. It’s not important.”
GASP! NO! NOT THAT! It’s not important to whom? It was obviously important by the body language and facial expressions she used when telling the other student, why would it not be important now? Or does she mean I’m not important enough for her to go through the trouble of repeating it? Be it right or be it wrong, when you say, “Never mind,” and “It’s not important,” to a deaf or hard of hearing person, that’s the message that comes across. “You’re not important enough for me to put forth effort to explain it to you.”
Try to imagine how you would feel if you went to a party and someone tells the most hilarious joke ever at just the moment your child tugs at your shirt and distracts you. The crowd breaks out in guffaws and screams of delight. When finished with your child’s needs, you look up and eagerly ask, “What was so funny?” Now imagine that the only response you get is someone brushing you off while saying, “Oh, it’s not important,” and then abandoning you for others in the crowd who actually know what’s going on. Doesn’t feel so hot, does it?
It doesn’t matter whether what you were saying was some stupid joke you heard from your five-year-old or a grand soliloquy your boss gave before he fired you, if it’s important enough to say once, to, say, a hearing person who is easy to converse with, it’s important enough to figure out a way to help the hearing-impaired person you’re with to understand what you were sharing.
In other words, sign, speak (clearly), mime, gesture, or write, but DO repeat it for us. Let us decide if it was worth all that effort. Because, whether you mean it or not, “Never mind,” can have much the same impact as turning to that person and telling them to go to hell.
Monday, July 5, 2010
Because American Sign Language (ASL) is a three-dimensional, visual-gestural language, there is no substitution for learning via an in-person method (class, tutoring, immersion in the Deaf community). However, if this is not an option for you, because of health, finance, or other reasons, two-dimensional resources are going to have to be the way to go. Twenty years ago, a person learning ASL had little more options for learning sign vocabulary than what they could find in a bookstore or library. But now, with the world wide web available at your fingertips, more choices are popping up every day.
If you’re like most ASL wanna-bes, you’re hoping to start with a basic sign vocabulary base and move on from there. Although there may be a dozen or more sites that are dedicated to featuring a dictionary of video footage of thousands of signs, today I want to focus on the four best-known sources.
Provided through Michigan State University, this site, created in 1997, allows you to search for thousands of ASL signs. This site requires a modern browser with QuickTime plug-ins. I found this dictionary to be one of, if not THE, best available online. However, it’s important to keep in mind that it does come from Michigan, and so some signs that are different in Michigan may not apply to what’s used in other states (just as a dictionary from the west side of the country will more likely feature sign variations that are more readily recognized in that area). For example, Michigan’s sign for TRASH is what most other states use for METAL. Also, Michigan’s sign for METAL is what most states use for GLASS. Another example is that Michigan’s sign for OUTSIDE is what is known in most other places as BOSS. Confusing? Not if you live in Michigan. On this particular site, the signs they show for TRASH and METAL reflect the Michigan variations, whereas the sign for OUTSIDE resembles the nationally recognized sign.
This is another Michigan-based ASL dictionary. It includes quite a bit of finger spelling, along with “over 5,000 signs and phrases.” Signing Savvy is relatively new (created in January of 2009) and the above discussed ASL BROWSER states that it is “similar to the ASL Browser, however, it is a newer web site that has a larger vocabulary, higher resolution videos, and several other capabilities such as the ability to search for signs, print signs, and build word lists.” I personally disagree. I’ve found that many of the signs they show are more English-based and some of their variations are not readily used in the Deaf community. Having said that, there are definitely good points to the site. The best thing about this site is that it includes signs that aren’t found on the other three sites, including slang and “mature” words. One downside though is that the words and the actual video footage of the signs are on two separate pages, so you have to keep going back and forth. As to whether it shows the Michigan variations of signs (since it is Michigan-based), for all three example words (TRASH, METAL, and OUTSIDE), it showed only the Michigan versions. That’s not saying that you must live in Michigan to use this dictionary though. Just be sure to counter-reference your results.
In my experience as a sign language teacher, I’ve found that, when a student comes to class with a sign question or when I teach a sign and a student says s/he learned a different “version,” it’s a result of using this online dictionary. Based in Texas, and using both hearing and deaf sign models, this dictionary is my least favorite of the four being discussed today. The sign models vary in degree of skill and experience, including two children, ages 10 and 14, but they make no mention of whether they’re deaf or hearing. Also to be duly noted is that many models show no facial expressions whatsoever (and, in many cases, facial expressions are just as important to the sign as the sign itself). If I were consulted by a student who’s starting to learn vocabulary through online sources, I would not recommend going to this site. In addition, if you do use this site, I strongly advise using it only after searching elsewhere. Having said that, it isn’t totally “evil” and this site may be used as an additional resource.
Sometimes referred to as “Lifeprint” by site visitors because of the URL, often times this site is overlooked for its dictionary uses. ASLU was created by a hard of hearing, full-time instructor of ASL/Deaf Studies at California State University, Sacramento, named William “Dr. Bill” Vicars, Ed.D. Along with ASL Browser, this is another site I highly recommend, especially if you’re wanting to learn American Sign Language signs rather than English variations (although often Dr. Bill gives English variations alongside the ASL demo). One of the best things is that, along with the pictures and videos, this dictionary provides information about the uses of each sign in a very easily-understandable written tone. It’s almost as if you’re right there in class with him. The only bad part about this site is that some of the signs only have a picture to go by and not an actual video. This is quickly being remedied however, as his site is constantly being updated.
As you do your online search for sign vocabulary, keep in mind that ASL is not a spoken language. Therefore, in the actual dictionaries of the four sites mentioned above, there is no audio. Also, all four dictionary resources are free, with Signing Savvy also offering a membership that provides more options for a nominal fee. In addition, if you're interested in learning more about ASL than just signs, ASLU offers free lessons along with an actual course that can transfer for credit. The course requires registration and payment.
Whether you’re just starting out or are trying to increase and improve your vocabulary skills, chances are you’ll find almost everything you need on these four sites. Always keep in mind, however, that, just like spoken languages, ASL is a living language that is continuously evolving. There are regional dialects and slang as well as different registers (casual versus formal, for example). Be sure to keep an open mind as you’re learning. There is no one specific and only way to sign a concept. Just as in English, where you can vary the way your thoughts are expressed, so, too, in ASL. With that in mind, enjoy your journey to this beautiful and inspiring language. You’re sure to find many treasures along the way.