Saturday, March 03, 2007


Deaf Social

Friday evening, I went over to the 3 Dollar Bill Cafe for their monthly LGBT Deaf Coffee Social. I started learning American Sign Language when I was 8 years old, because my mother came home from class and used us kids to practice. Over the years since then, I've taken a couple of classes here and there, but mostly had very little opportunity to practice [left hand closed with index finger extended, right hand closed with thumb extended, rub right fingertips back and forth along the left index finger]. I can still fingerspell a mile a minute, although it probably comes out more like amieaminte — it's incredibly useful to be able to sign like a drunken sailor. However, when it comes to reading someone else's signing, unless they keep it verrry slow and at the vocabulary level of a typical preschooler, I get lost, catching maybe every fifth word. On the other hand, I find with all the languages I've studied that native speakers (or native signers, as the case may be) are usually remarkably patient with anyone who is sincerely trying to learn the language. After all, learning someone else's language is a compliment to their culture as well as the start of building a bridge.

Being in a group of people mostly communicating in sign language, though, adds some surreal elements that you won't encounter in spoken languages. For one thing, you can have a dizzying array of non-conflicting simultaneous conversations. With four people at a table, you can have two completely separate exchanges going on, and it scales up pretty well from there. You can also have conversations across a room without doing anything analogous to shouting. More noticeable in a social context, though, is that you hear little more than background noise until suddenly someone tells a joke — it's like watching a sitcom with no sound but the laugh track. (Yes, deaf people do generally laugh out loud.) The other thing is that some signs make sounds of their own, including slapping, snapping, and the ever-popular "raspberry" (part of the sign for "birthday," among others). I found, though, that the most distracting sounds were the few spoken conversations in the room. It's remarkably difficult to tune out a nearby conversation in your native language to focus on a language so completely different.

If you want to start out learning sign language, you can get pretty far with just 26 signs, and branch out from there. Be careful, though, of the transatlantic chasm: English and American don't even use the same alphabet!

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