Painting Words: what hearing people should know about sign language
ASL paints a picture, placing concepts like objects in a frame, moving them around to show what is happening where. Feelings are painted in brilliant color, adding emphasis or speed or size, until the movements become a dance in the silent air.
My mother taught me to read and write English, and my Cochlear implants allow me to hear it; but American Sign Language (ASL) will always be the language of my heart. I think in ASL, dream in ASL, pray in ASL, and will teach my children ASL.
ASL is not guttural English words put onto my hands and moved around to the rhythm of droning sounds I cannot hear. ASL paints a picture, placing concepts like objects in a frame, moving them around to show what is happening where. Feelings are painted in brilliant color, adding emphasis or speed or size, until the movements become a dance in the silent air.
ASL is a language expressed through hand shape, body orientation, location, and movement, and includes non-manual signals from the eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth, and shoulders. Its syntax and grammar are completely unrelated to English, even excluding verb tense, number, and articles. However, there are technical details for the practiced painters of sign language.
Most Deaf people are thrilled when encountering a friendly hearing person who makes an effort to communicate. Easy greetings, such as saluting “hello” and spelling your own name are significant culturally and show you are making an effort. Maintaining eye contact is respectful and shows an interest, and learning new signs from a Deaf friend will show you care about what they have to share. Any effort to communicate will foster love and understanding.
Understanding some basics about sign language will help you identify with your friends in the Deaf community:
Before you can paint a picture, you need something to paint. ASL always puts the noun first, so that you can know what is being described or how the action is moving it around. Many of the romantic languages, like French and Spanish, do this often enough that it feels familiar even to hearing English speakers. Just as “pretty house” would be “casa bonita,” ASL would give the adjective after the noun by signing “house-pretty."
There are no word endings to give shadows to the passage of time. Instead, time is painted the way we live it: the past is behind us and the future before us. If it was last week, “one week” is signed and then moves back toward the body; if it is next week, “one week” is signed and then moves forward. A common sign for “finish” — the same sign babies use for “all done” — is used before a verb to indicate past tense. Instead of signing “visit” and then adding an “-ed” ending, you just sign “finish-visit.”
Gender is easily indicated by location. Imagine a horizontal line at nose level. All the male signs are above this line, and all the female signs are below the line. You sign “boy” by imagining you tip your hat at the ladies, and the sign for “girl” comes like the old bonnet strings down the cheek. Husband is “boy-spouse” and wife is “girl-spouse;” son is “boy-baby” and daughter is “girl-baby.” Aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews all have matching signs done either above or below the gender line. You can even sign “cousin” above or below the line to indicate if it is a male or female cousin.
Many ASL vocabulary words make sense enough they are easy to remember. The sign for “milk” comes from milking a cow; the sign for “bread” comes from the action made when you are slicing a loaf of bread. Other signs are easy to remember because they are simply what you do: the motion for shooting a basket means “basketball,” and the motion for swinging a golf club is the sign for “golf.” Some signs are easy because they are the same for everyone: you can wave to a Deaf person the same as you would a hearing person. Others make sense after you understand them, such as the “I love you” sign being the combination of the letters “I-L-Y.”
Learning to readsign language is an entirely different skill than learning how to do a few signs on your own hands. It’s one thing to learn how to paint, and a different thing to learn to recognize artists by color, design, and topic. Everyone signs a little differently, and different regions have their own “accents.” Learning to understand when other people are signing will take practice, which requires participating in cultural events — whether that is playing basketball with a neighbor child who is Deaf, or whether that is attending a Deaf community activity.
There are many books, online videos, phone and tablet apps, and community classes that teach ASL. Making any effort at all will mean the world to the Deaf person you care about, and show respect to any new Deaf people you might meet — even just at the grocery store, a restaurant, or your place of business. One of my most favorite memories of all was when a hearing family showed up on my doorstep to do Christmas caroling with the entire family signing as they sang; it was a beautiful painting.