Friday, September 16, 2011

Sign Language

I'm not totally sure why I decided to take a Sign Language class my freshman year. I remember there was a football player in the class, wanting to be able to communicate better with a deaf teammate. I don't think he lasted very long in the class. I stayed in the class the whole time but didn't do very well, like anyone learning a brand new language, and having not used it since, I've forgotten most of it. I do know that playing the telephone game in American Sign Language (ASL) gets you about the same results as the whispering version, where you end up with a totally different message by the time you make it around the circle.

Something interesting about ASL that may seem obvious to some and not so much to others is that it is distinct from English. There is Manually Coded English (MCE) which is basically a word for word translation from English, generally following its grammar rules, but that's not what two people signing to each other are likely to use. ASL has its own grammar rules, not to mention some extra features. Obviously body language and facial expressions are important in spoken conversations, but they are even more important when signing.

I find the spatial nature of the language fascinating. Think of the way you might write a paragraph talking about a person. The first time you mention him or her, you would say the name, and generally from then on you would use the pronoun he or she, at least until it starts getting confusing if other hes or shes are involved. You can actually do a similar thing when signing, where instead of assigning a person, place, or thing to a pronoun, you assign them to spaces. So if you're talking about your boss and a coworker, you might sign your boss's name over toward your right side and your coworker's name toward your left side. If the boss gave something to the coworker, you would make the sign for give and move it from the boss' space to the coworker's space. Maybe it was a birthday gift and when your coworker regifts it to you for your birthday, you would then make the give sign and move it from the coworker's space toward yourself while making a kind of disgusted face.

Speaking of signing names, if someone is not Deaf (capital D, meaning they're part of the Deaf culture), they would just have an English name that is finger-spelled. You don't give yourself a name. A Deaf person gives you a namesign. It's kind of like the mountain men. You get a mountain man name from a mountain man as part of being accepted into the mountain man culture. Like mountain man names, namesigns are generally descriptive of a physical characteristic of the person or something he or she does. It may or may not be related to the given English name.

Something I learned not really related to the content of the class but that would be helpful in understanding the workings of college in general is that if you're taking a random elective and not receiving an awesome grade (think C), changing the class to Pass/Fail is a great option to not pull down your GPA. Of course, I learned this after I finished the class, not during it when it could have helped me. That's just another one of those things that an advisor could have told me during orientation instead of all the useless stuff they told us.

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