Monday, July 4, 2011

THE DELIMMA: Does Correcting Someone's ASL Cause Friction?

Independence Day is almost finished and I’m left with the remnants of a BBQ gone awry. Actually, since “awry” means “off from the expected course,” perhaps it doesn’t apply here. I mean, if I’m going to have hearing guests in the house, I should expect some trouble. Yet, time after time, I keep my fingers crossed (which, by the way, makes it very hard to sign) in hopes that this time things will be different. But, I can honestly say, although I’ve tried to keep my optimistic self in hand (another hard way to sign), most of the time, things do go “awry.”

We’ve had this couple over a few times. In fact, we don’t really have that many friends that we hang out with and this couple seems to be one of the only ones available at any given time. They’re a nice couple, don’t get me wrong, but they’re also kind of hard to talk with…literally and figuratively.

After we had hung out a couple of times, Kenny and I decided that, with the sign language class we were teaching in the near future, we would invite them to attend for free. This way, they learn to sign and I can socialize with them without a lot of problems.

That was the theory, anyway.

In the class, the female part of this boy/girl couple caught on pretty quickly. She had taken another workshop with me in the past and seemed to have learned well. However, the male half simply couldn’t get his hands to match what his mind was trying to express. If you’ve ever taken an ASL I class, you know what I’m talking about. It’s those few students who, try as they may to express that they’re feeling perfect today, end up signing that they’ve been feeling their penis all day. And so it went for ten class sessions.

Fast-forward four years and picture that very same person trying to remember “all” that they’d learned and then have a conversation with me. Let’s just say it isn’t pretty. So I sit and smile, counting the ticking of the clock and trying to be as hospitable as is possible when what I really want to do is go stick my head in the oven and pray the gas line is leaking.

So, there I am. Four years after the class, the girl seemed to do OK. She messed up quite a bit, but I could understand her enough. The boy sadly struggled to the point of disappearing off with my husband whenever possible, so he wasn’t put in the awkward situation of having to make conversation with me.

They arrive for the 4th with a two-liter of soda in hand and two loads of laundry to do in our washing machine. They smile and we hug (because it’s what we’re supposed to do, I guess).

Awkward silence.

“Just put that soda down anywhere. Glad you could join us for the BBQ,” I said/signed, trying to make them feel welcome. All of that lasted a total of 30 seconds and then the silence returned.

“IT GOOD SEE YOU. THANK YOU FOR DO-DO US. WE DECIDE YOU NEED GOOD MORNING” (Translated: It’s good to see you. Thank you for INVITING us. We HOPE you’re HAVING a good DAY.”)

“It’s nice to have you here. Anything exciting happening with you guys lately?” Kenny signed and spoke so all were included.


The conversation would have continued in this manner had I not faked the need to pee and run off to the bathroom to hide for the first fifteen minutes of their visit. Yet, when I came back into the room, things kind of went back and forth between what I just described and them totally ignoring me. I preferred the latter in this circumstance.

So, what do I do? What is the polite thing to do? Should I nicely and casually try to correct them? Or should I let it go, because I know they’re not out in the Deaf community and I’m the only deafie they know?

At first, I tried for the first option. I repeated what they said, only in question form and with the correct signs. I thought they would appreciate it. I mean, I was, after all, their former teacher. But I suppose “former” is the key word there. They didn’t take well to the correcting. A slight scoff and a stare off to the side of the room were pretty “telling.” It was saying, “Hey! We don’t have to sign to you AT ALL. Take what we’re giving you. We’re not here for a sign language lesson!”

Good point.

And so the question pops up…when faced with a person you know fairly well, and who has asked for signing help from you in the past, is it proper to correct them or just let it slide (unless they directly ask)?

My sister told me at my Grandma’s funeral that she was Satan. She meant that she was paranoid, but got the handshape WAY wrong. At the same funeral, my mother told me not to cry because “GRANDMA is WITH QUEEN.” She meant that she was with the Lord, but Queen came out and, just to be honest, it was just what I needed to kick the crying I was doing. Here I am at a funeral surrounded by Satan and the fact that my newly deceased grandmother has gone to England to practice waving and riding around in a carriage. Not a bad scene, Grandma.

In those instances, I did correct them….after I stopped laughing. But I did it jokingly and with love. Were they made to feel embarrassed? I hope not. I don’t think so. Who knows? But, in that instance, too, I had to weigh the benefit of correcting them with the idea of whether it would be beneficial or just me being superficial.

I want it known that I DO appreciate people who have a basic knowledge of sign language trying their best to include me in the conversation. I’m not mocking that and saying it shouldn’t happen. But when the mistake is made over and over, when does the point come where I should stop them and show them the right way? And, after I do that, what should happen if they continue to sign it wrong anyway?

The way I see it is, I’ll show them the correct sign simply by signing it myself in a sentence. If, after that, they continue to do it wrong, I’ll just chalk it up to their decision not to learn. And, if in doing that, it makes days like today go “awry,” well then, so be it. I guess it doesn’t matter anyway. Ninety minutes into the BBQ I was hiding in my room with my laptop. Live and let live I say. But sign and let sign? Eh…that depends.


  1. I can see how correction would cause some friction, but I think at other times it would be much appreciated. It's the only way to learn. When I was learning to voice, if I struggled with a word, someone would say "did you mean *insert word*?" and if that is the word I meant, I'd either nod (if it was a word I knew I was nowhere close to mastering) or try and repeat it. If they had guessed wrong, we'd try again. But only one correction on the word in each conversation, just so the person who was trying to communicate with me knew what words I was substituting and so I wouldn't get overly frustrated.
    For me, the same thing is helpful in signing. show me the word I mis-signed, ask if that is what I meant and let me try and get it right. As long as I'm not in a hurry or super excited. :)
    But that's me and I'm by no means everyone.

  2. Joy, you've got a great attitude! I wish people wouldn't get so upset or be rude about it. If I sign it again for them, many times they'll just roll their eyes and say, "Oh, you know what I meant." Okaaaaaaaay then. LOL

  3. Remember when hearing people would correct our speech? Same thing...only they might take offense if their sign was corrected!

    I've only corrected a stranger once...a McDonald's front counter worker when she signed "shake" using the wrong direction. I showed her up-and-down, not body-outwards. She immediately got it and burst out in laughter.

  4. Dianrez, Oh, yes. I think that was a good time to correct. I'd say 90% of the time, if the sign they're signing is (by mistake) and "adult" sign, I do correct. I'll say, "Don't do ___. It means a WHOLE different thing." LOL

  5. After 4 years of learning ASL, I look forward to hanging out with fellow deafies, and I would hope they would correct my signs as much as possible so that I can sign more clearly. I mean, you have to choose the level of correction wisely since you dont want to add 15 corrections to each sentence, though. Nobody wants the conversation to take forever.

  6. That's true, Aaron. Good attitude, by the way!

  7. For someone you may see once a year, correct theme would probably be a discouragement to try.

    If you interact often, there's more a chance that they could actually learn from being corrected.

    If you correct me anytime, I appreciate it.
    *mine name b-i-l-l mine signing horrible*

  8. Hi Michelle. I just have to say that I love your blog. I found it by looking up Mr. Holland's Opus/ASL. I love your sense of humor here, especially at your Grandmother's funeral. I wish I knew you in real life, you could correct me all you wanted to. I've had a passion for ASL for many years. I'm just a simple person. I'm a single mom to two adult sons and two teenaged girls. I have a passion for ASL and hope to be fluent in it some day. We're watching Mr. Holland's Opus right now. I've seen it before, but not in several years.

    I hope that you have a *wonderful* weekend,

    Robin :)

  9. Thanks, Robin! Glad you like the blog. If you ever have any topics you'd like me to cover, just let me know. Oh, and I love "Mr. Holland's Opus." Especially the fact that they do decide to raise him with sign language and they show that he turned out just fine. :v)

  10. Actually, I find it very rude if someone learned sign, and then get together at a later time even if its a very far later time, they take offense or pull that attitude they were pulling with you, knowing you are deaf but at the same time they're trying, they should still be willing to try and learn even more. Its just like speaking. You screw up a word they'll help you correct it, even if you aren't asking for it. The same should be with sign language. YOu screw up, we'll help you, even if yer not asking for it, for the simple fact that you ARE trying, and we just want to help you further your learning, because hey you never know! You might actually insult or offend someone else who's deaf, by not knowing the right ones....heck even my roomie knows this and she's trying so very hard and is progressing greatly in communicating with me with both voice and sign. Its even best when she's sick and I can translate and help and she can't even speak..or the same with me, lol

  11. Hi Neca

    Are you saying that it's rude for the student to be corrected or it's rude for the deaf person to get frustrated? Not sure.