I could feel a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see an older gentleman. He pulled out a pen and a notepad and wrote “Plain M&Ms?” I looked at the candy aisle and could see that the spot where they should be was vacant. The thing is, I wasn’t quite sure how to communicate that to him. I opted to write it down as well, “We’re out, sorry.” It seemed only fair. I think that’s when I decided to start learning American Sign Language. As it turns out, he wouldn’t be the only deaf customers to frequent the store. Now generally, the best time to learn a language is before you actually need to use it, so when you need it you already know it. But better late than never.
My fascination with ASL started with the clubs that my school offered, there was one called Sunsign Club – all the students did was learn and converse in ASL, which would have been great, but we can only be in one club at a time and I had a passion for Spanish (and I still do -hablo español muy bien!) Still, I had always wanted to learn it, it’s just that I didn’t have a framework or any idea where to start. Fortunately, the internet is a game changer and I found out that lifeprint.com offers free ASL lessons.
Learning to sign has begun to make me more aware of people, watching these lessons without audio has given me a glimpse into a world without hearing, and helped me to appreciate the simple joys of communication. Have you noticed how signers are so much more expressive? To convey how something makes them feel or describe how something is, they have to use facial expressions and exaggerated gestures. When we use words alone to describe something, it just feels a little lazy. “His house is big.” and “His house is huge.” Are just two statements with no real punch to them. I’m so used to hearing, listening for cues and definitions and explanations that it’s pretty easy to miss what’s going on and being said in the videos. Turns out, that’s what Daphne felt as she tried to keep up with the Kennishes on Switched at Birth when they first met. I know it’s a fictional t.v. show, but it’s the first one to feature the Deaf community for mainstream audiences to this degree. Sue Thomas F.B. Eye also gets an honorable mention for it’s use of ASL. It can only be a good thing – and I hope there’s more of it. Consider this, the only reason why so many of us know what “hasta la vista” is is because it’s from Terminator 2 and we got used to it. We picked up “mi casa, su casa” and “que sera sera” along the way. Once you get started learning a little bit, it gets easier to learn more. So, I hope, it will be with ASL, something we will see more and more of and maybe one day be bilingual in so that we can communicate with everyone. Communication is connection, it’s being understood and understanding others, it’s something so many of us take for granted until there’s a hic-cup and we suddenly don’t have it.
I think learning ASL has also helped me to see something I would have missed otherwise. I was watching the Pursuit of Happyness the other day. When I first saw the movie a few years ago, I didn’t notice that in the worship scene there was a man signing the lyrics of the song the choir was singing, I saw him this time. I thought back and no church I had ever attended had sign language interpreters. We also never had deaf people either. Most people, me included, don’t see needs until a need needs to be filled. We don’t see the need to learn ASL until we need to use it. But say a deaf man or woman walks into a church without interpreters – will they see the need to stay if nobody knows how to talk to them? Would you like to know how to strike up a conversation with them? One of my favorite stories is that of Martha’s Vineyard from a hundred or so years ago. Deafness was such a common occurence, that even hearing islanders would learn sign language. Men would sign to one another as they were working the fields, women would learn sign language to buy and sell things at shops, even children would use sign language at church to communicate, nobody was disadvantaged or excluded from having a normal life. I think we can learn from their example.
One other thing, ASL just isn’t limited to the states, it’s widely recognized among Deaf communities throughout Africa, Hong Kong, the Phillipines, Sinagpore – it’s considered a bridge language that helps bring people of different cultures together. I know it’s not easy to just learn a language, it takes time and practice – but if you do choose to learn it, at least you’ll know it for when (not if) you will need it.