Despite what many people think, American Sign Language (ASL) is most definitely its own distinct language and it has even worked its way into becoming the third most used language in the United States. Lots of people are frightened at the idea of learning a language that uses hand movements, gestures, facial expressions and many more things to communicate, that does not include spoken language. That’s mainly because there is a lack of opportunity to learn ASL in classrooms, due to the the fact that teachers are not given the chance to pursue ASL as a subject at different institutions, but that is slowly changing.
So, what makes ASL its own language? It has its own rules and features just like the English, but I like to look at it as an art. It is a beautiful language that allows you to express yourself and communicate with people who we do not interact with on a daily basis. Deaf or hard of hearing people are avoided everyday by hearing people and it is important to know that they are just like you, they just can’t hear! They have the ability to convey the exact same message as someone who is speaking in a few signs that makes everything more meaningful.
Going into high school, I knew I wanted to take ASL classes, as I was very interested in learning multiple languages, taking Spanish and French along with ASL at the end of my high school career. As I embarked on my ASL journey my junior year, my eyes were opened to a unique way of communicating and learning that really challenged me to get out of my comfort zone. I would have to stand up in front of the class and express a message and hope that my peers and teachers understood everything I signed. As I went through the year, and eventually my second year of ASL, I found myself wanting to stand up and sign and have a conversation. I even had the opportunity to talk to my ASL teacher’s husband, Lou Volpintesta, who is deaf, and I was exhilarated at the fact all my learning has allowed me to do what I had wanted from the beginning: to communicate with the deaf community.
An amazing thing about where I’m from is that the American School for the Deaf (ASD) is right down the street from my high school. Therefore, learning about deaf culture always felt so close. My senior year, my class watched a movie called And Your Name is Jonah. It’s an interesting movie from 1979 about a young boy named Jonah who is deaf and goes through many obstacles to communicate with his family before learning sign language which allows him to begin living a great life. Besides the plot of the movie and being able to analyze societal views of deaf people and how to «handle» them (as if deaf people are problems in this world), I was shocked when I found out the main character, Jonah, was played by the current superintendent of ASD. It’s like having some deaf history a couple of blocks away.
In ASL, there are five parameters you learn: handshape, palm orientation, movement, location, and facial expression. When put all together, you are able to construct a long sentence in English into a few signs along with body movements and facial expressions that mean so much more than a plain face and a moving mouth. This beautiful language is open to anyone and every one and allows for you to learn about a whole other culture that is composed of its own history and customs. Most vacationers don’t even know that Martha’s Vineyard was an island where sign language flourished and was used by both hearing and deaf people in the early eighteenth century till 1952. Taking the chance to learn something as simple as how to introduce yourself is what deaf people will appreciate: that you are trying. Deaf people do not want to be treated differently but they also want to be seen. By learning ASL, you are enriching your mind and immersing yourself into a beautiful culture.
There are many resources accessible to learn ASL and to learn more about deaf culture! Lingvano (www.lingvano.com) is a great website where you can learn ASL in small chunks. You can slowly build up confidence through an online program like this! ASL is also a great language to learn as a child which allows them to communicate even before a child learns to speak. Signing Time (signingtime.com) is an awesome resource where you and the kids in your life can start immersing yourself in this hands on language!