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

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:

1. Fluency

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]


Please contact Professor Liang if you wish to write for The North Star Reports — HLIANG (at) css.edu

See also, our Facebook page with curated news articles at http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports

The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy (http://NorthStarReports.org) is a student edited and student authored open access publication centered around the themes of global and historical connections. Our guiding philosophy is that those of us who are fortunate enough to receive an education and to travel our planet are ethically bound to share our knowledge with those who cannot afford to do so. Therefore, creating virtual and actual communities of learning between college and K-12 classes are integral to our mission. In five years we have published over 300 articles covering all habitable continents and a variety of topics ranging from history and politics, food and popular culture, to global inequities to complex identities. These articles are read by K-12 and college students. Our volunteer student editors and writers come from Nursing to Biology, Physical Therapy to Business, and remarkably, many of our student editors and writers have long graduated from college. We also have writers and editors from other colleges and universities. In addition to our main site, we also curate a Facebook page dedicated to annotated news articles selected by our student editors (http://www.facebook.com/NorthStarReports). We have an all volunteer staff. The North Star Reports is sponsored and published by Professor Hong-Ming Liang and NSR Student Editors and Writers. For a brief summary of our history, please see the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at: http://www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2013/1305/Opening-The-Middle-Ground-Journal.cfm

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.

(c) 2012-present The North Star Reports: Global Citizenship and Digital Literacy http://NorthStarReports.org ISSN: 2377-908X The NSR is sponsored and published by Professor Hong-Ming Liang, NSR Student Editors and Writers. See Masthead for our not-for-profit educational open- access policy. K-12 teachers, if you are using these reports for your classes, please contact editor-in-chief Professor Liang at HLIANG (at) css.edu

24 Comments

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24 responses to “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

    • Lexie DeWall

      Hello Maria!

      I also took Spanish courses during high school and didn’t find them very interesting or exciting either. I think it is great that you decided to continue expanding your knowledge in regards to the ASL community. I am realizing more and more how relevant ASL is in our day and age, and that it is being used so much more often. Long before you or I were around, early humans used their own type of communication. “They could utter simple commands and communicate with hand signals, but complex linguistic expression eluded them” (Tignor, p. 14). I think this quote really ties in with how important ASL is. It ties back in with early humans and how it was their only way of communicating with each other. Today, we are lucky enough to have expanded our language capabilities and are able to communicate through written, verbal, and nonverbal language as well. Thank you so much for sharing your experience, it truly is amazing!

    • Sarah Symanietz

      Hello Maria,
      I found your post to be quite relatable to my experience in high school and college. I started taking Spanish in firth and continued with it even when other choices were presented, due to Spanish being familiar. What I really appreciate is your understanding of culture and language as a whole. Additionally, that you state individuals need to pull their own weight when communicating with someone of a different language. I found this to be very important because we should not put ourselves in a position where we ask others to do more work than ourself when it comes to communicating. If we do take that position, it would be like stepping back into early human times when we were not capable of communicating due to limited skills. This is an idea I will carry with me in the future if I find myself communicating with an individual of a different language.
      Sarah

  1. Katelyn Fischer

    Hi Maria!
    I am currently in my second year of ASL, and I can confirm that ASL teaches the above. I think ASL has also taught me many soft skills. With ASL, I have learned so many good communication skills. I have learned to focus on people better while communicating and provide non-verbal feedback. I think ASL classes provide students with more than just a gateway to a new and fascinating language and culture, but with important soft skills they can use throughout life.

  2. Samantha Willert

    Hello Maria,

    I am glad that you found the right language to study for yourself. I chose to stick with Spanish, but everyone is different in their choosing. I have learned a little bit of ASL; however, I am trying to perfect my Spanish skills before I move on to the next language to study. I think that the takeaway lessons that you apply towards ASL can really be applied toward learning all of the languages. I know for me, I apply those toward my Spanish minor, and I consider them to be very true and effective. Thank you for sharing your story!

  3. Cassandra Mahlberg

    Hi Maria, this is a nifty article, thank you for sharing. I find it really interesting that you were required to start taking Spanish classes in elementary school. My first language wasn’t until 8th grade and I think it was still an elective at that time. I’ve always enjoyed languages so it is really different to see that you disliked it to such a great extent. I understand being combative about language learning, especially as English-speakers, we often take for granted the wide access to people around the world with whom we can communicate. Learning something orally is also very different than visually which could have made a difference for you in your experience. Back to my previous idea though, when we assume that there are people we can talk to anywhere we go, it is a shock when we come into a situation where that safety net is removed (this also adds into the frustration that hearing people have when encountering people from the deaf or hard of hearing community). It is not our strong suit as Americans to meet people in the middle, this applies to our bi-partisan political system as well as our cultural ideals, so when we meet people who lie outside or on different planes, we categorize them as wrong or “disabled”. I am glad you were able to find passion in ASL to broaden your perspective about people and language. We have to try extra hard as Americans to break out of the cultural structures that frame different as bad or “other” and learning a language is a really good step for that.

  4. Katelyn Fischer

    Hi Maria
    Learning ASL has so many benefits and learning about a different culutre and language is super fascinating. I am currently in my second year of ASL, and everything you said is bery true. I think ASL also taught me a lot of soft skills, especially when it comes to communitcating. I have learned how to given non-verbal feedback (I don’t even realize I do it now), hold eye contact better, and how to be an active listener instead of passive. All these aspects of communitcation can be used throughout life, and I have found that I actually pay better attention in my classes. While learning ASL, you have to focus on the signer (otherwise you miss the whole conversation) and that has transfered to my other classes where I focus on the speaker much better now. I strongly encourage everyone looking to learn ASL, not just because it is an amaing language and has an amazing culutre, but because it will help the learner with so many other aspects in life.

  5. Shelby Olson

    This article was well written and I thought that your five different takeaways from your ASL classes were very enlightening on some very important aspects of the language. Personally I have always been interested in learning sign language by have never really had the chance or time to do so. Growing up I was also very confused as to why there were language requirements in school, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned the importance of them because not only does learning a different language make you more aware and able to communicate with people, it also acts as a way to open you up to a new culture and perspective. One thing that you brought up that I found incredibly interesting was the idea that “each signer has their own accent.’” I’ve never thought of the movements, shapes and signs as a sort of accent but this definitely broadens my outlook on both spoken and unspoken languages. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Tamer Mische-Richter

    ASL has always interested me. While I was growing up, my mom took classes and would teach what she knew to my brothers and I. Of all that we were shown, the only thing we truly retained was finger spelling. Having the availability to sign to those who are deaf or hard of hearing is extremely valuable. It brings uncertainty and challenges comfort however. I know enough to understand what my mom or brothers spell to me, but any time that I encounter having to use the language with a person who is deaf or hard of hearing, I lock up. I attribute this to the factor of fluency that you speak of. I have known how to finger spell as long as I can remember, however having only that in my toolbox triggers some anxiety when you work with someone to have a conversation. I have learned however that many of those who are deaf appreciate the effort that you do put in before you reach for a pen and paper.

  7. DyAnna Grondahl

    Maria,

    I really appreciate this article. Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Wichita in which I was delighted to attend a keynote speech by Nyle Dimarco. I have been learning about deaf culture little by little from my good friend Jemma – it’s been interesting to continue thinking about the issue of audism and how our society continues to be centered around hearing people, and with that, we continue to feel bad for those who can’t hear (but I have learned that that’s not really how people should think about it). Nyle Dimarco’s talk centered around this issue – and his perspective made so much clear. As his interpreter vocalized his speech, Nyle made it apparent that he didn’t feel bad that he was deaf, in fact, his deafness served as an assett rather than a limitation. He was responsible for the advocacy keynote, and with all the work he has done to advocate for the deaf community, I was truly honored to get to attend his keynote.

    Best,
    DyAnna

  8. Elijah Ortega

    Maria,
    This was a very interesting read for me. As a spanish major I agree with a lot that you have to say on the subject of learning ASL as its applicable to learning any language. Your interest in the language excites me and I have always thought of taking a ASL course, after having read this maybe I will.
    Thank you for the read

  9. Ashley DeJuliannie

    Maria,

    Thank you for writing this article. I personally attended the Ed Chevy event both this year and last. Both times I was reminded of the importance of knowing ASL. My friends in ASL have educated me on the societal issue surrounding audism and how it impacts people every day. This social justice issue is one that makes me wonder how it got there in the first place.

    Again, thanks for sharing!

  10. Madina

    Hi maria!

    I really liked reading your paper because I think it did a great job being relatable. Most of us hated taken a foreign language in high school but I really liked that you called to the importance of it. I think your drive and love of sign language is really cool because I think it has a very deep rooted importance in our society. I think that the more people that are able to speak sign language, the better because it makes communication inclusive for an even greater amount of people.

  11. Catey Swenson

    Maria,
    this is a really great article; I was not aware of how deaf people prefer to be addressed and I really liked how you explained helping vs supporting, and pulling your own weight. I agree that it is important for people to be sensitive to others needs but at the same time, not being overbearing. A hearing person is not a hero for being supportive of a deaf person; I think that is another important thing to address. It’s also important, like you said, to pull your own weight. Everyone deserves to feel safe and heard in their environment. It’s interesting how little some schools push foreign language.
    Thanks for sharing!
    Catey

  12. Marissa Mikrot

    Hi Maria,

    Thank you so much for sharing! Language is such an incredible thing and is so very important in exploring yourself and the rest of the world. I’m glad that you continued your study of ASL through college, as many people don’t take language in college. I’m also glad that ASL has expanded your interest in other languages like Spanish! I’m currently working on my fourth language. Although, like you said, I can’t confidently say that I’m fluent in the second and third. The love that has grown for them will continue to grow for sure.

  13. Lexie DeWall

    Hello Maria!

    I also took Spanish courses during high school and didn’t find them very interesting or exciting either. I think it is great that you decided to continue expanding your knowledge in regards to the ASL community. I am realizing more and more how relevant ASL is in our day and age, and that it is being used so much more often. Long before you or I were around, early humans used their own type of communication. “They could utter simple commands and communicate with hand signals, but complex linguistic expression eluded them” (Tignor, p. 14). I think this quote really ties in with how important ASL is. It ties back in with early humans and how it was their only way of communicating with each other. Today, we are lucky enough to have expanded our language capabilities and are able to communicate through written, verbal, and nonverbal language as well. Thank you so much for sharing your experience, it truly is amazing!

  14. Justice Bauer

    Hello Maria!

    Wow! I really loved reading your essay on your experiences with ASL. I have always wanted to learn this language, but I had the exact same experience with Spanish with my own education experience. I never truly enjoyed learning it, I just did it to fulfill my requirements I’ve worked in a lot of different classrooms now and ASL seems to be common in elementary schools around Duluth. I have picked up on a lot of it, and really want to learn more to teach my own students some of it in the future. In professor Liang’s history class that I am taking, we just read about language and how it has developed. It truly sets apart from other species and is amazing how many different languages there are and how it has developed over the course of time! Thank you for sharing your experiences! It made me look forward to learning ASL in the future.

  15. Tara Bighley

    Hi Maria,
    I enjoyed reading this article because it made me think more about the importance of treating people equally. I knew that individuals who are hard of hearing do not like to be referred to certain names, but I never thought of hearing impaired as one of them. When reading this article, I thought about a situation I was in with someone who was deaf. They were in a panic looking for an animal hospital. I froze up because I was not sure how to communicate with them. Once I realized that she could read my lips and understand where I was pointing she knew where to go. Luckily the hospital was right around the corner of where we were. When you said, “pulling your own weight,” I thought about that situation and now looking back I reflect on how I could have made that situation better. Thank you for sharing, I really enjoyed your article!

  16. Justice Bauer

    Hello Maria,
    I really enjoyed reading your post about your experiences with ASL. I was in the same boat when it came to Spanish in my high school experience. I was often disengaged in the course content and just did the bare minimum to get a good grade in the classroom instead of soaking in the material as I should have. I really wish my school had an ASL program that I could’ve taken instead. I am a future teacher and have worked in many elementary classrooms that use ASL to communicate small things to young students. I think that this is an excellent way to get the students interested and so they know the basics of the language. I am inspired to learn this language in the future, as I believe that it is really important to be able to communicate in different ways. In professor Liang’s History course, we just read a chapter that included a section that provided us with how important language is and how it sets us apart from other species. It is amazing how many languages there are and the diversity in which we communicate.

  17. Kristeljei Baltazar

    Hello Maria,

    I also took five years of Spanish in high school. I took it for that long because just like you, the fear of trying something new held me back. I enjoyed learning about Spanish, the different Spanish speaking countries and their cultures. But if ASL was an offered to me in high school, I would have definitely taken that class instead of Spanish. I thought about taking it when I started college at St. Scholastica but I had to prioritize the required classes for my major and before I knew it, my time and schedule was limited for “fun” classes.

    Your article has a lot of good information that is really helpful to someone like me who doesn’t really know much about the deaf and hard of hearing culture/community. You mentioned about the use of some words to describe deaf and hard of hearing people. That is something I did not know before and I think this is important information. You also pointed out the use of “ally” to support different group of people instead of “helping” them is eye-opening. I’ve never thought that the word “help” could take away from people instead of supporting them.

    Thank you for sharing your story Maria!

  18. Elizabeth Ericson

    Maria,
    I really enjoyed reading your article in regards to learning a language. I have always been interested in learning American Sign Language. After taking Spanish classes in high school, I always wanted to be proficient in another language, but never pursued it any further. I loved your views on all that ASL has taught you over the last five years. I would love to one day take a class in order to begin learning this language. Although I am still in school, I will be a nurse soon. In nursing, it would be very beneficial to know sign language in order to communicate with the hard of hearing population. In nursing, we encounter people of many different populations, so understanding and being able to communicate in this dialogue would be very helpful. In my current history course, we are reading the textbook, “Worlds Together Worlds Apart.” This text expressed that early humans could communicate with simple hand signals even when complex linguistic expression had not yet been developed. This shows that early communication did not require exclusive use of vocal expression. ASL is truly an amazing way to communicate that has been around for longer than I could have ever imagined. Thank you for sharing your experience!
    Liz

  19. Hi Maria!
    I have a similar experience to you regarding taking Spanish classes throughout high school without much of a choice. Although, I did enjoy taking Spanish, I wish I would have gotten into a different language such as ASL. I have always found it fascinating how some are able to communicate completely through their hands and signals. I hope to one day be able to do so as well. Tignor mentions how communication and cognitive skills as well as opposable thumbs are some of the first few characteristics that distinguished early humans from other animals. It’s amazing to see how far humanity as a whole has developed and come since then.

  20. Erin Diver

    Hello Mariah!
    Thank you for sharing your experience- it was a really interesting read! I also wished I had had more exposure to ASL while growing up. I was fortunate in elementary school when a parent volunteered to teach us basics, but it was only basics, and it was only for a short amount of time. After that, it was always on my bucket-list to learn more, and is still not crossed off. You are painfully accurate when you say there isn’t as much opportunity to learn ASL as there should be. When there finally is, we’re already so developed in our first language that learning a second one is harder than if we had started as children, which is sad because that leaves out an entire culture in our country that we’re able to respectfully communicate with. While I don’t know many deaf individuals or individuals who are hard of hearing, I do have experience with children on the autism spectrum: sometimes it is easier to focus on hand motion than it is to focus on full sentences, and sometimes it is easier to communicate through hand motion than it is to formulate full sentences. ASL really is an open window for individuals who have either no other way to communicate, or find verbal communication difficult. In my History course at Scholastica, we learn that without communication, complex and well-developed society is out of reach: “The early hominins could not form large communities, as they had limited communication skills… creating language enabled humans to become modern humans” (Tignor 14). Should it not be obvious, then, that we should strive to make ASL classes more available in order to make a closer and more respectful society?

  21. Ashley Hamilton

    Maria,
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experiences with American Sign Language. It is so interesting to learn about as I have friends and family who have studied the language and I have always wanted to as well, but never had the opportunity to. It is fascinating to see how language has evolved over time. In the textbook, “Worlds Together Worlds Apart”, Tignor et al. discuss how as humans developed, a large brain and complex cognitive skills were needed in order to have meaningful conversation (p.24, 2018). Language has evolved substantially over the years and it is a fascinating area to study. I still hope in the future that I can take the time to learn this language as it would further my ability to work with patients in the healthcare field. Thank you for your post!

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