What learning American Sign Language has taught me – by Maria Nowak. The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy, at NorthStarReports.org and facebook.com/NorthStarReports
[Performer Ed Chevy, Saint Scholastica ASL and Deaf Culture Club event.]
From Kindergarten all the way until 11th grade of high school, I hated foreign language requirements. Elementary through middle school I was required to take Spanish classes every year. Though I always did well in these classes, I never found much enjoyment out of them. Year after year, I felt as though I wasn’t learning anything new. When I got to high school, I was finally able to pick a language I wanted to study. Despite having this freedom, the fear of trying something new held me back, so I decided to stick with Spanish classes.
My junior year of high school was my last, and definitely most challenging year of taking Spanish courses. When it was over, I felt relieved. But, something amazing happened before my senior year of high school. My school decided to adopt an American Sign Language (ASL) program. ASL was a language I was always interested in learning, but I knew I couldn’t (and shouldn’t) try to learn it by myself. Even after completing all my language requirements for high school, I decided to take ASL anyway. Almost instantly, I feel in love with the language.
[CSS ASL and Deaf Culture Club campaign]
It’s been five years since my first ASL class. Over the years, these courses have allowed me to learn the most about myself, my abilities, diversity, equity, and respect. The lessons I took away from each course have helped me become more of a well-rounded and open-minded person. I have a deeper love and respect for languages after taking ASL, as well as a new drive to continue learning cultures different from my own.
Here are a few main take-away lessons from my ASL courses:
Fluency in a language cannot be measured in the amount of years one has spent studying that certain language. After five years of taking ASL courses, I still don’t feel comfortable saying I am fluent in American Sign Language. This isn’t because I don’t understand the structure, grammar, signs, culture, or anything other aspect of ASL. This is simply because language is not a static concept. Language is fluid, and similar to the rest of Deaf and Hard of Hearing community culture, it is always changing. ASL isn’t my first language, and I am not exposed to it every day. This makes it tough to keep up with the changing signs, phrases, slang, etc. No matter how many courses I have taken, there is always something more I can learn.
2. You Need Multiple Resources to Learn From
Most people understand that learning a language is very complex and dynamic. No two people talk the exact same way, which is also the case when it comes to sign language. No two signers are the exact same. There are various signs for the same word depending on what region one signer might be from. Each signer has their own “accent” for how the movement, speed, or shape of their signs might look. It is not enough for students learning any language to simply only learn from one resource. It must be a multi-dimensional learning process where multiple teachers, books, websites, community members, and personal experiences shape the learning of a language.
3. Pull Your Own Weight
When you come across a situation where you are trying to communicate with someone who does not speak the same language as you, it’s easy to become frustrated and feel uncomfortable. In my experiences with Deaf or Hard of Hearing individuals, they are usually asked to accommodate to the hearing person for communication to occur. ASL has taught me that it is that it is incredibly important to pull your own weight when it comes to communicating with someone who doesn’t speak your native language. For example, when a hearing person is trying to communicate with someone who is Deaf of Hard of Hearing, it is not uncommon for a hearing person to ask the other person to read their lips, to try and speak using their voice, to find someone who can translate for them, or to just give up. There are different ways that this situation could go more smoothly. It is rude to ask a Deaf or Hard of Hearing person to rely on reading your lips; if they feel comfortable with this method, they should be the one to say so themselves. If you know any signs at all, try your best to communicate as much as you can with them in ASL; however, be careful with this one. Not every Deaf or Hard of Hearing individual knows sign language. If you don’t know ASL, try to find a pen or paper, or a phone to try and communicate back and forth. People from this community deal with these encounters every day, and it is important to show that someone is willing to work with them rather than against them to communicate.
4. Focus on the Cans
In the Deaf community, it is wrong to use the phrases “disabled”, “handicap”, and “hearing impaired”. Most people in this community prefer to be referred to as “Deaf” or “Hard of Hearing”. It was interesting to learn the effect that these words can have on individuals in this community. Now having learned more about Deaf culture and being around people from this community, it is completely obvious how these negative terms don’t describe this community at all. Our society tends to focus on all the “cannots” rather than on the “cans”. Some people fear for Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals because they can’t hear, or perhaps they maybe also can’t speak. This thought process takes away from all the things these individuals can do. It’s important to remember that just because someone is differently-abled than what might be considered “normal”, this does not mean they are “disabled”.
5. Being an Ally Means Supporting, Not “Helping”
When we recognize prejudices, discrimination, and oppression against a certain group or culture, it’s our duty to be an ally to this community and step in. We can do this by educating ourselves about different cultures, exposing ourselves to new ideas or new people, sharing our thoughts and beliefs in a respectful manner, and supporting the community in any way we can. It’s not our duty to say we need to “help” specific groups, instead we should say we are here to support these groups. Helping people can sometimes lead to taking away from the voices of the individuals within the community. Simply because we might believe certain groups want our help, doesn’t mean it’s our responsibility to step in when we haven’t been asked. Being a true ally to a culture or a community involves standing up against the oppression or discrimination, educating others, and offering support in any way asked from the members within that group.
Learning a language is incredibly important in order to expose yourself to many different ideas, thoughts, cultures, and diverse experiences. It gives you a new respect for others, and helps you find a new appreciation for diversity and the uniqueness of individuals different than yourself. You become more curious, willing to try new things, open-minded, and self-aware. Language is fluid, changing, dynamic, and a worth-while challenge to learn.
I often wish I had been more patient when learning Spanish. But, after some time, I have learned to appreciate the language and culture more. I hope one day to be able to get back into continuing to learn Spanish.
[Matt Hamill, who is a Deaf UFC wrestler]
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Professor Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The North Star Reports. Kathryn Marquis Hirsch, Managing Editor, The North Star Reports. Ellie Swanson and Marin Ekstrom, Assistant Managing Editors, The North Star Reports.
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