You enter the room and leave your voice at the door.
Today was the big start of my formal American Sign Language classes, short form being ASL, and the outlook is promising. Our teacher turns out to be lovely, funny and blessedly patient.
I was surprised by how little I knew about American Sign Language. It became apparent, as we went through the introduction into ASL’s heritage, etiquette and community that is both unique and, in particular, distinguishable from the English language. In fact, with this course, they are hoping to beat the English out of us. Having picked up a little sign while working, it turns out that we are using it incorrectly because we are signing with English grammar and sentence structure.
Get this: ASL is used only in America and Canada, not internationally and not even in Mexico. Its inception was the brain-child of an American that he in turn developed with the help of a French man. (The British, interestingly enough, had declined to help.)
So when they teach you to ask someone for their name, “What is your name?” is incorrect. Rather, the proper order to sign is “you name what?” Granted I know virtually nothing about French, but I do know their sentence structure is backward from English and that is exactly how ASL works. And it is that way because a Frenchman helped an American build the language.
Another oddity, strange things are polite and polite things are strange.
If you were to come across two people in a hallway signing to each other and you had no other way to get around, what would you do? Your nature is to do something: excuse yourself, duck slightly out of the way or perhaps stop and wait until the signers give permission to cross. But the polite thing to do is walk straight between them without saying a word. To a hearing person that is immensely rude.
And pointing! Goodness. I am a natural pointer and I have all my life been told it was rude to point. Not so in ASL. It is essential to proper signing. Whether comparing two actual objects or two referenced but imaginary objects in front of you, pointing is how you talk about two or more of anything. I was so happy. My fingers are free!
Last week’s lesson really felt like a photograph coming into sharp focus. I realized that ASL is definitely not a way of speaking English with my hands, but a language all its own, that its people, the Deaf, are immensely proud to have and use because it is the key, the framework, the building block, the something that gave them a voice.
My own hope for the course is that signing will become mostly second nature and that my hand will not to get tired so quickly. Considerably lesser ideals – lol – but significant nonetheless to this little Cajun girl that always spoke with her hands anyway.