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Isn’t ASL the same as English, just with signs?

By Dennis | May 13, 2007

In my opinion, this is one the biggest Deaf-Hearing barriers. While many hearing children pick up some ASL from Deaf friends, they never really LEARN ASL, they just sign as they would speak English, I know this because that’s what I did. Then as they grow older, if they don’t stay in touch with their Deaf friends they forget. But what they never really understood was that ASL has it’s own form and flow. In English, the order of the sentence elements isn’t the same as it is in ASL.

Hearing people without exposure to the Deaf community have no idea that they are mistaken, and have never heard of SEE or any of the other signed forms of communication. They also don’t know that even though there are several signed forms, only ASL is truly a language. Now, this being a blog, I’m not going to go and quote research, I’m going to recall what I’ve read and heard and put it down as it stuck in my mind. What makes ASL a language is a many fold discussion. First, the fact that it does have it’s own unique form and flow, second, that it is a distillation of other languages, and third, that it is LIVING. By living I mean it is practiced and used by a community/culture that exists on this planet today.

I think the fact that ASL is its own language is something the Hearing community needs to be made more aware of. I think if you explained about it a little, curiosity would make us want to discover more. After all, humans are a curious bunch. Present us a little bit of interesting fact, and we want more. Explain how when ASL was just beginning it was part French, part native sign, part English, part French sign. And how to make it easier and more natural, those who were being taught it, and using it, modified it as they went.

One of the best things about a language is it’s ability to adapt to changes in the culture that lives with it. Look at English, over the years since it was brought to the American continents it has changed so much. These 200 and some odd years sound like a long time, but in reality they aren’t. Not in world time. But in that time, if you stand a native Englishman next to an American, you can easily see how so many things have changed. Look at the dictionary. We have how many new words? How many words that mean different things? It’s amazing. This same type of growth and adaptation is what made ASL what it is today, and continues to keep it growing and changing.

I realize that for many of you, this is nothing new, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. But for me, as a ‘Hearie’, it is new, is wonderful and educational. It helps me understand why English isn’t as easy for native ASL users. I’m saying these things in the hope that next time you run into a ‘Hearie’ who asks you a question you feel is degrading or demeaning, you’ll take into account that they just don’t know or understand and have a little patience and educate them some. Next time you’re talking to your friends about these things, you’ll suggest just that to them. Take the time to tell us things. Tell us how you feel about what we say and do, but tell us in a way that makes us want to listen, not in a way that makes us feel like we did something bad on pupose.

Next time, I want to talk about ‘Oralism’, but I need some help. I have no concept of how anybody could expect Deaf people to do or learn anything without a language they already know and grasp fully. In my mind, if I were going to teach Deaf people English, I would want a full avenue of communication to them. If I went right now to learn Spanish, I would go to a bilingual Spanish/English speaker. They would use English to teach me Spanish. In fact, this is what I did. How is it that anybody could expect Deaf people to learn English, if they don’t have a language you already understand to explain it in? Consequently, I would love to have some background information I could look through to see what in the hell they were thinking. Suggestions?

Until next time,

Dennis

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