Wednesday, December 2, 2009

ASL and Communication: My (Strange) Experiences

In high school I took two years of American Sign Language in place of the choices available for my foreign language requirement, which were either Spanish or French. Considering the typical setup of an American classroom already makes it difficult for me to hear the teacher, trying to hear the teacher in a foreign language was just not working out for me. (I still remember attempting to learn some Spanish in middle school and how utterly frustrated I was. What I thought I was hearing was not what I should be saying, if I could even figure out what the teacher was saying behind a meaningless jumble of vowels and consonants.)

Anyway, I adored my American Sign Language classes. I loved the ability to communicate in a way that did not necessitate me staring at a person's lips and struggling to hear their voice. I could put my already evolved knowledge of body language and expression to use in a way that told me so much more than it does in a typical conversation. Learning about Deaf culture opened new worlds to me, and flexing the muscles of my fingers and hands made me feel skilled and special at a particular task.

That said, I unfortunately haven't had the chance to use ASL much since 2004. Like any other language, my knowledge has slowly degraded from disuse. I do of course still know my alphabet, though my motions moving through A through Z are no longer smooth and practiced. I remember a few simple words and signs I've taught Scotty so that we can communicate easily when I have my aids out or in a loud situation. I want to learn more - I just haven't had the chance, and don't know the right people to keep the knowledge fresh in my mind.

Occasionally I meet people who do sign. Not Deaf people but hearing people who know ASL. At least... that's the positive side. I meet people who see my aids, and start fingerspelling names or adding small signs in as they speak words. It's nice that they are acknowledging my hearing loss in this subtle way. However, most of the time it serves to distract me from what I really need to pay attention to, the sounds they are making. Signing one word out of a sentence is not going to help. I do appreciate the consideration, though.

And then I've met the people who just... honestly, I have no idea what runs through their heads. I have had people come up to me, ask me if I am hearing impaired and then begin to flail their hands and arms around aimlessly. Even though I haven't used ASL in almost six years I can easily tell this is not ASL. Nor is it any kind of actual signing. It's just utterly random movements with no predictability and no flow to them.

So I've been trying lately to figure out why they are doing it. Are they simply a little bit crazy? Do they misunderstand what ASL really is and honestly think it's just flailing about? Do they feel self-conscious, like they have to sign to me, so they put up this silly stereotype of sign that does nothing but just be embarassing? Or is there a perfectly logical reason behind their flailing? It always makes me feel uncomfortable and a little bad for them. The last person who did this to me refused to speak to me and just flailed his hands around. I thought he himself might be hearing impaired until I heard him speaking perfectly well and calmly to another person. I won't lie. That made me angry and feel pretty helpless.

If someone refuses to communicate meaningfully with you, what do you do...?


  1. Your post made me smile :)

    I take French right now, but I've considered taking ASL later in my high school years. I'm not sure if I have room in my schedule..we'll see.

    As far as the flailing/gesturing thing, most people who do this do it with anyone, not just people like us who can't hear. My mom is a very animated person- I always laugh at her because she make wild arm gestures and movements while she is on the phone. (As well as in person) I think it just has more to do with someone's personality... I find louder people with "bigger" personalities tend to do it more. Do you?

  2. Yes, I know what you're talking about with animated people and hand gestures. I know a few people like that. But that's not what I meant in my post. I mean these very few people have come up to me and, not talking, simply gestured at me with nonsensical movements. Then, they speak to someone else clearly. It seems they think they are communicating with me (or they are just crazy).

  3. When I was a student interpreter I went with a group of deaf moms to the zoo. They were very nice to me, and said they would let me practice interpreting. This one woman who saw the group of us signing RAN UP and said "I know sign language!" and started flailing around like an idiot. She geniunely thought it meant something though, she wasn't trying to mock anyone. I just want to know HOW people think that wildly flailing around in no systematic way is sign language. Nuts.

  4. Roan, that is hilarious. It's just crazy.

  5. I took ASL in college, a long time before I had my daughter, and now I'm very happy I did. I don't remember a lot, but it's coming back quickly. Usually people don't talk to Queen Teen directly, the talk to me or another adult, just assuming that she can't understand. Right now, she does have a hard time, but I wish people wouldn't assume that.

  6. I started learning some sign language when I was in college by hanging around friends who knew it and had interepters with them. I didn't really use it much since my family didn't know sign language and one of my brothers seemed to make fun of it.

    It bugs me when people come up and try to do sign language and you know that they don't know it. It has discouraged me from learning it as I realized the majority of the world just doesn't know it and it's not like I have an interepter with me everyday.

    The other thing I hate is when folks talk very loud and slow. Yes I can read lips very well but you don't have to talk very slow like I'm mentally challenged or something.


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