Learning ASL

I’ve finished my first week of intensive American Sign Language (ASL) classes: six hours a day in class, an hour or two doing homework, and of course seeing people signing all over campus. So where have I got? I can say things like My name is (and fingerspell my name), Where do you come from, and How did you get here?

How did I get here?

I still have no idea, none at all, how tenses work, and I find it all but impossible to read fingerspelling. It just goes by too fast. After videotaping myself, I discovered to my chagrin that I couldn’t read my own fingerspelling. Did I really make that second o in my last name? I had to slow down the video to see that, yes, I had.

When they say “immersion” they mean it: no spoken English is used at all. There’s occasional writing on the board, and that’s it. It’s like figuring out a giant logic puzzle. Fortunately, I’ve got a good teacher: he’s funny, expressive, patient.

On the first day of class he showed a picture of a drill on the board, and made the sign for drill: the right index finger going through two fingers of the left hand. I was puzzled. Why teach us the sign for drill on the first day? Did woodworking hold a special place in deaf culture? Then he did a few signs we already knew, like name, and then drill again. Drill, I thought. Drill wood. Huh? Then he did a new sign, the right fist sliding against the left index finger, thumb pointing toward the body. Drill. New sign. Drill. New sign. I got that light-bulb aha moment — the new sign must mean a language drill. The sign means practice!

And then there’s the textbook, which almost never gives the definitions of individual signs, along with its CD-ROM, whose videos aren’t translated into English. You get an outline of the meaning of the conversation, and that’s it. You have to figure out what the signs mean on your own.

Of course, I cheated. I bought a dictionary. But often I can figure out the meaning on my own.

“ASL evolves,” my instructor sometimes says when explaining variants of a sign. The numbers 1 through 20 are all signed on one hand. But he signed the numbers 16 through 20 differently than the video. “Old people do it that way,” he signed to us, when we looked puzzled. (The sign for old is the fist descending from the chin, as if stroking a beard.) The video was done in 1993. “ASL evolves.”

ASL may evolve in a much more protean way than spoken languages, because it has no written form to fix it. A language unmoored from the page, busily reinvented by each new generation.

The first three days of class were a delight, a hummingbird whirl of puzzle-solving. The last two I’ve felt slower, stupider, not getting signs I would have gotten before, my hands not being able to form letters they could before. I think my mind is overloaded. Overheated. Tired. Too many signs. Need the weekend to rest and let my subconscious unblock the channels.

I look around the cafeteria and think: Fifty or a hundred years ago, many of the people here would have received no meaningful education in any language, which would have condemned them to a marginalized life. People with IQs of 130 pushing brooms. To earlier eras Gallaudet would seem like a paradise: bright clean buildings, classrooms full of students, and people conversing endlessly about whatever they want.

It’s not a paradise. Descend below the surface and you see a community trying to raise its academic standards, improve its graduation rate, and – most of all – groping for a new mission in a world where more and more deaf kids are getting cochlear implants and going to mainstream high schools and colleges. That puts the language, the culture, the university – in short, everything I see around me – at risk of vanishing.

But as David Crystal says in his book Language Death, which I’m reading now, each human language carries with it a unique and valuable way of looking at the world: a fresh set of perspectives for describing and meeting human needs. ASL is a visual language in a society dominated by the image, the icon, the picture. And, to turn the parallelism around, it’s a community-oriented language in a society where communities are falling apart.

Can ASL do something for the world that is unique, fresh, new, necessary?

It already has, of course. It’s had a profound impact on linguistics. Parents use it to communicate with their infants, whose motor skills mature sooner than their vocal skills. But these are niche impacts. Can ASL change English itself? Or find a new home in the technological infrastructure of our society, guaranteeing not only its own survival but also that of the culture that created it?

I don’t know. My working hypothesis is that it can.

How, I don’t know yet.

I think of the Jews, who prospered despite medieval repression by developing skills – such as banking – that were forbidden to their Christian neighbors. I think of Apple, which prospered not by playing the PC market better, but by creating entirely new markets.

I’m hoping that in the next ten months, new ideas will emerge.


  1. This is a great post.

    I am looking forward to reading more about your experiences at Gallaudet.

    I often wonder what Gallaudet will be when my 3 year old daughter comes of age.

  2. Umm… I don’t know what you’ve been reading, but 50 years ago, deaf people weren’t living in institutions. LInguistic starvation? Where are you coming up with this?
    In some ways, they were more employable than they are today because they were taught a trade. And is there something wrong with manual labor? Don’t be such a white collar snob. This country was built by people who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.

  3. Mike,

    You are right when you say ASL evolves. Everything evolves and changes over time. Look at how technology has changed the way we hear! There will always be a need for places like Gallaudet, the Jewish community, and other groups in society.

    Keep us posted on your ASL homework. Hopefully you will get straight A’s from your teacher!

  4. Michael,

    You seem to be harboring the illusory idea that cochlear implants are a “miracle cure.” They are not. The overwhelming majority of the people who use them will need to use sign language anyway in order to prosper, both cognitively and otherwise.

    CI’s, the way they exist today, are not going to cause Deaf culture’s influence to decline.

  5. Congratulations on your Gallaudet appointment and good luck as you prepare to teach what should be a very interesting class. I’m sure there’s going to be some intense discussion as well as new paths for you to explore in your writing.

    I find what you are doing to be very brave (especially in light of some of the comments you seem to get on the blog). Do keep us posted and let us know if you are available for speaking gigs while out on the East Coast.

  6. Heh, a lot of young deaf people who needed to be educated were sent to Deaf institutions, but that was actually a good thing for most of them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be exposed to ASL, deaf culture, or even education at all. Institutionalised deaf education actually gave deaf children of lower economic class, chances that their hearing peers or siblings might not have had (since deaf education was paid for by the state). Far more deaf children are being mainstreamed with an interpreter, and that entails linguistic starvation, as the interpreter is often their only contact with a signer.

    Have you read Inside Deaf Culture by Padden & Humphries? It’s good.

    There’s no shame in the trades, of course, and back then it was certainly easier for deaf people to excel in that respect. You just mean that in this day and age, deaf people now have more opportunities and more support in the way of pursuing a far more academic career.

  7. Another Mike says


    It’s interesting that when you became deaf, you had the choice to learn to hear with a Cochlear Implant (which currently doesn’t do a very good job of duplicating normal hearing) or learning ASL. And now you’re learning ASL anyway – in some ways it’s a similar experience.


  8. Mimi, I’ve clarified my blog entry after reading your comments. By “institutions” I was not referring to deaf schools, many of which gave their students a good education and a rich social life. I meant places where deaf people were warehoused for life in the belief that they were cognitively disabled. And by “manual labor” I wasn’t referring to the trades, such as printing and factory work; I was referring to unskilled labor.

    There have been enlightened teachers, and founders of schools, in various ages. There are Abbe de L’Epeé, Abbé Sicard, Laurent Clerc, Anne Sullivan, and of course Thomas Gallaudet himself. But many deaf people with great natural talents never found their way to such schools, and spent their lives in poverty.

    Responding to anon: I’m well aware that cochlear implants are not a miracle cure. Even with two, I’m still a person with a significant hearing loss. And I agree with you entirely that deaf people should learn ASL — but I would add that they should learn it simultaneously with spoken English. Many studies have shown that there are significant cognitive benefits to growing up bilingually, and I bet the benefit is even greater when one of the languages is a visual language.

    But, unfortunately, the numbers seem to suggest that CIs are in fact having a numerical impact on deaf society. In its April 2008 Monthly Indicators Report, Gallaudet noted that its primary recruiting pool — seniors at deaf high schools — has declined by 25% in the past ten years. I’m cautious in interpreting such a figure, because the decline could be for many other reasons than CI implantation. But I’m certain that CI usage is responsible for at least some of it.

  9. Hi, Mike, Congratulations on the book contract. The new book sounds fantastic. And your course at Gallaudet sounds great. Good luck learning ASL. All the best, Cathy

  10. I have been fortunate to fall into the good graces of a friend that I mentored through her CI journey. Her husband communicates solely by ASL and is willing to set aside an hour every week to teach me ASL. They hand me papers but most of them they will tell me that it is the “old way.” Even the way I do the alphabet, the only signs I was positively sure of is considered the “old way.”

    So what do I do? I learn both ways and it confuses the heck out of me. Apparently, ASL changes too depending on the geographic location. ASL in the north signs differently then the south does.

    Fingerspelling, I am a certifiable mess with. However, I feel that I am doing pretty good for someone at this stage of the game. I loosened up my fingers by fingerspelling just about everything in sight.

    I’ll be looking forward to see how you are coming along with it. Perhaps you get practice on a video phone too! I just got my very own Ojo 🙂

  11. Ah, this brought back so many memories! My first ASL class was taught by a native user and I remember trying to figure out that totally new language little by little. There were many frustrations and a lot of determination. You’ll be whizzing along in no time!

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