Monday, May 26, 2014

CORRECTION: Make Them or Not?

Before I started teaching American Sign Language, I made a lot of assumptions. I assumed that everyone knew never to wear black socks with shorts and white tennis shoes, that when people asked for your opinion, they actually wanted it, and that all Sign Language students wanted to be corrected if blatantly wrong. What I found out, though, is that I was three for three. Plenty of people don black socks in the summer. No one wants to know if such and such an outfit makes them look fat. And, many times, new signers (and some more experienced ones as well) don't want to know when they're signing wrong. Many just want to "amaze" you with their so-called ability and leave it at that.

I learned this the hard way. With my kids, they didn't get to say -- I had to correct them so they'd grow up to be at least partially fluent. Signing DESERVE when they meant MOST became a terrible habit, but at least it wasn't my hubby signing PENIS when he meant PERFECT. (In his defense, he only did this once -- in a group of Deaf people -- but I've teased him about it incessantly since.)

I can recall one time when my child's physical therapist invited me to go to a scrapbook party with some of her hearing friends. All was going well till the end when she decided to interpret a conversation for me. Now, this woman had only learned sign from a book. Which book? I do not know, but I would have guessed the book was titled, "50 Things Not to Do When You Sign."

As she chewed her gum and smiled hugely (over-enunciating as she signed), she started signing for me: BOSS DONT-WANT S-A-A ARREST HIS HAIR. WALK DESERVE BROTHER NOW INDEPENDENT WE. They all started giggling and clapping at their remark and then turned to me for my reaction. The look on my face was priceless. I looked like I was trying to hold off on a big fart. Huh??? I looked at my friend and she gave me the dirtiest look that clearly said, "Act like you know what's going on or I'll kill you." Again, I had no idea, so I asked for a repeat. She smiled politely and then signed the exact same thing again.

"I'm sorry, but I don't understand. Can you write that down for me?" Another woman picked up a pen and wrote, "The President doesn't know his ass from his head. Maybe the new guy can save us."

Ohhh!! I nodded and acted like it was funny. They left for easier conversations and I turned to my friend and started to show her how to sign those two sentences. She glared at me and walked away without saying anything. In fact, she never spoke to me again. Ever.

The longer I've been dealing with students, the more I'm realizing how being corrected can be quite the insult. However, if you truly want to learn -- and be correct while you're doing it -- you have to embrace the opportunity when fluent Deaf people offer their "services." I , also, have to learn when to show people the correct sign and when to smile and let it go. However, if you're my student, be prepared to learn. That's my job. I'm not there to clap and sign praises if you're wrong. That's why you hired me. But I am very nice about it.

BOTTOM LINE? Respect the language and learn as you go. Be around Deaf signers and get as much education from them as they offer. It's really the whole point, isn't it?

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Having the Memory of a Hamster

You know, it's not easy living with an ultra short memory span. Both my short term and long term memory have been affected by various things over the course of my life. I meet people once and the next time I see them I'm like, "WHO are you? Never heard of you."

"Oh, sure! We met yesterday. I came over and dry walled your daughter's room. Remember?"

"Nope. Still nothing. Sorry." I feel bad. I'm nicer about it, but I seriously can't remember people or places...or things...Nouns. Let's just say "nouns."

A couple of days ago I was in Schular's Book Store (a local shop) and decided I wanted a sweet tea (I'm addicted!). When it was my turn, the girl at the counter started jabbering at me. "I'm Deaf," I told her, as I usually do.

"You're DEAF?!?! I LOVE YOU!" Of course she said this as she shoved the sign for "I love you" in my face. (This isn't the first time this has happened to me. Seems a lot of people love me when they find out I'm Deaf).

"Uh, thanks, I just need a large sweet tea to go, please."

"Noooo! Don't go! Stay here and chat with me!"

"No, really. I have a limited time and I need to go look for something."

"Oh...that's so sad. I'm learning ASL at the local college. Watch! A...B...C...D, wait that's F...A...B....C...D, dammit! A...B...C..D, that's right, right?"

"Really, I have to go."

"Oh. OK. Well, bye!"

"Can I have my tea please?"

"Tea?" This woman had the same memory span as I, but I finally made it out of there OK...eventually.

The next day I needed to go to Hobby Lobby. As I approached the counter, a young, blonde woman shouted, "Hi, Michele! How are you?" She signed this all rather well at the same time; even her fingerspelling was smooth."

"Hi! Uh...I can't remember your name."

"Oh, I'm Jessica."

"Hi, Jessica! Where'd you learn to sign so well?"

"From your class. I took your class last Spring."

"Oh, I am so sorry I didn't recognize your face." She smiled and then quickly looked behind me. I looked and...

"Heeey! Remember me? I made you a tea at Schular's yesterday. I'm learning sign language, too," She said to Jessica. "My name is 'Diane.'" She started to fingerspell her name. "D...wait that's F....D. No wait. Grrr." Jessica and I showed her a "D." "No, that's not it. D... (she used an "U" this time)...."

"We gotcha, Diane." Then Jessica and I proceeded to go through Diane's name letter by letter.

I finished up and tried to escape, but Diane followed me out to my car. I was slightly afraid for my life--she was so hyper! But I did survive.

Now, I have a terrible memory and I will probably not remember Jessica the next time I see her, but Diane? Her face is embedded in my brain., It's kind of sad. The students from my classes, whom I cherish, I sometimes forget. But make me wait for a tea and I'll remember you for the rest of my life.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Five Best Ways to Learn American Sign Language

As a teacher of American Sign Language, I am often approached by family members and friends of Deaf people or by ASL students wanting to know the best way to learn the language of American Sign Language. "Wow," I think. "What a loaded question!" I think it has a lot to do with why you want to learn (Do you have a deaf grandchild you want to communicate with or do you just think it's cool looking?), how serious you are (was this just a last-minute idea or have you been planning this seriously for a while?), and what resources are available to you (Do you have internet access readily available; are there Deaf events in your area, etc.?).

If you're serious and you know you'll be sticking with it, here are five great ways to start your journey...

1. BOOKS WITH DVD's WITH THEM -- This would be for the very beginner or as a refresher for those coming back to ASL after a hiatus. If you're just going for vocabulary at first, I strongly recommend "The Gallaudet University American Sign Language Dictionary." Gallaudet University is by far the top resource for Deaf Americans and their dictionary only proves this. If you want to get started with sentence structure right away, try "The American Sign Language Phrase Book," by Lou Fant and Barbara Berstein Fant. The latest edition has a DVD with it. The pictures aren't the greatest, but it's great to learn basic ASL sentence structure. There are many other good books as well. I recommend going to Harris Communications and looking through their available ASL books.

2. INTERNET COURSES -- If you have the time to sit at your computer and do Facebook, you certainly have time to learn some great ASL lessons off the internet. There are online dictionaries at ASL Pro and Signing Savvy, etc. Both of these have a plethora of vocab words to show you and ASL Pro even has phrases available. ASL pro is based out of Texas and Signing Savvy is based out of Michigan, so you might see slight differences. Truth is, you'll be meeting Deaf people from all over and so it's good to know as many variations of sign concepts as possible. You can also go to and type in "American Sign Language" and you'll get tons of basic sign language or you to learn. If you type in "Intermediate American Sign Language," you'll get some pretty good, more advanced videos. Be wary of who is signing on them. You don't want to learn from another student.

3. LIFEPRINT.COM -- I'm giving this site it's own number, because if there were a way to learn ASL strictly online, the ASL University is the forerunner in this department. Filled with vocabulary, history, Deaf Culture, numbering/lettering (beginners and advanced), phrases, videos, facts, and more, it's taught by Bill Vicars (a Deaf/HOH ASL user) who is personable and thorough. There's even ways to contact him for information (though you shouldn't need to since it's all on the site) and it gets very advanced as you go -- as slowly or quickly as possible. You can pay and do the curriculum with his help for credit or you can even self-teach yourself the curriculum (if you're highly motivated). Very worth your time to check it out!

4. IN-PERSON/COLLEGE CLASSES -- Sure, some high schools are starting to offer ASL at their facility (Yay!), but most classes worth taking are college or just in-person classes. Every class should be evaluated on its own though. Attend at your own risk. There are some amazing ASL Interpreter Training Programs around the country, but there are also programs that bomb. Before signing up for an ASL class, find out who the teacher is. Are they Deaf/HOH/hearing/certified interpreter/CODA/etc? How much experience does he or she have? Which curriculum do they use? Do they use their voice the entire time or so you get to have some silent signing at times? Be careful and get recommendations. But in-person training is by far the best way to go about learning the basics.

5. DEAF/HOH EVENTS -- After (or while) you learn Basic American Sign Language, it's time to venture out into the Deaf world and get to know some native and skilled signers in your neighborhood. Look in your yellow pages for Deaf service agencies -- they should be able to supply you with local meeting times and activities to whet your appetite. For example, here in West Michigan, there are Deaf nights at two different malls, coffee meet-ups, ASL movies, softball, dances and even galas! If you're looking to work on your receptive skills and practice your expressive skills, there's plenty of opportunities for this! So, don't be shy. Get out there and mingle. It may be the only way to make yourself into an advance American Sign Language user.