Learning to Listen with my Eyes

I finally took an American Sign Language (ASL) class. It’s something I’ve been curious about for a long time, and it got the greatest number of votes when I asked readers to choose what activities from the blog list I’d do this year. Doing everything remotely made it easier for me to fit it in my schedule, but I’m going to wait until I can take a class in person before I take another ASL class. 

The class I took, from my local adult education center, was partly immersion-based, which was cool but I wasn’t expecting that for a beginner-level class. The instructor was Deaf, and for the first third of the first class, an interpreter was there for introductions. Through the interpreter, Carol told us a little about herself and a little about Deaf culture and the history of ASL. It developed based on French sign language in [decade.] Then, the interpreter left, to my initial surprise. Carol occasionally gave us instructions in the Zoom chat, and signed the rest. Like many Deaf Americans, she reads and writes English but it’s not her first language. Since we were there to learn ASL anyway, she often wrote English with ASL syntax. 

Holding my hand next to my head with one finger in the air.
Me, in the middle of signing "I understand."

We had PDFs of pages from a workbook that included drawings of people doing signs with English translations underneath. Each class started with new vocabulary, and Carol would demonstrate each sign on the unit’s vocabulary list in order, with the five other students and I following along. That first class, she also taught us a few signs we’d need for practicing together -- “ready,” “again,” and “finished.” After demonstrating the new vocabulary a few times, Carol paired us off to practice together. She had little cards with our names which she would shuffle and draw from to put us in pairs or call on us, which I thought was clever. Pairing off over Zoom was weird at first. We didn’t need breakout rooms because our microphones were off, so we just looked at the person we were working with. I usually didn’t pin people’s videos because we changed partners often. There was one couple who always joined class from the same computer, and it was particularly an adjustment to sign with one of them without being distracted by the other.

For me, the most challenging part of the class was how different it is to pay attention to someone signing and someone speaking orally. I quickly realized I could never take my eyes off the screen for more than a second or I’d miss something. This was especially true on the computer, but would be true in person as well. I could feel the language-learning part of my brain working hard as I got used to paying attention visually.

The first couple of classes, I became acutely aware of a habit I’ve always had -- when I’m in a class or meeting that also has an instructional worksheet or packet, I tend to split my attention between the live class and the materials, reading ahead a bit for context or flipping back to review something that hadn’t clicked the first time. I know some instructors don’t like when students do this, but it really works for me and how my brain works. In ASL class, however, I can’t listen with my ears and read with my eyes -- I need my eyes for what’s going on in class. After a few weeks I figured out that if I read the day’s packet ahead of time, I’d be much more comfortable keeping my eyes on the person talking in class. As the class progressed, we spent more time with the packets, as some of them had paragraphs on grammar or Deaf culture. Carol would sometimes pause and tell us to read the paragraphs before we practiced the related concept.

The grammar and syntax has actually been the most fun part of starting to learn ASL for me. Some of the rules are just different from English, so I get word order wrong sometimes. Some of them are easy and kind of intuitive. For example, the signs for “I,” “you,” and “they” are pointing towards yourself, directly in front of yourself, or in front and to the side, respectively. There’s a set of verbs that are signed differently based on the subject and the objects, but conjugating them makes a lot of sense. The sign for “give” is done straight out from the chest for “I give to you” and to the side for “I give to them.” The direction is reversed for “You give to me” or “they give to me.” I love this, because it has a demonstrativeness that doesn’t exist in spoken languages.

On the other hand, as an adult beginner I’m finding some ASL grammar quite hard to grasp. It’s still my favorite part, but in this case because I find it fascinating. In the last class we started to learn about how the sign for “finish” can be used to mean “complete” or “only” (“We’re just friends” is signed “we’re friends, finish,” and in some cases, it indicates past tense. You can also indicate tense with the sign for when something happens: in the sentences “Yesterday I saw your brother” and “tomorrow I will see your brother,” the only sign that changes is yesterday or tomorrow. This part I understand, but “finish” to me only feels intuitive when the teacher asks if we’ve finished the exercise.*

I really liked the class and was glad to take it over Zoom so it was easy to fit into my schedule, but I do feel that it lost something over the computer. One problem is shared by beginners and fluent speakers -- the signs don’t always fit easily on camera. ASL uses all of the space in front of your face and torso, so I had to sit further back from the webcam than I’m used to, and some signs are lower down and have to be modified (“pants” and “skirt” are some level-one examples). Plus, many signs travel across the space in front of your body, particularly when you’re talking about motion or the relationships between things, so if you’re not careful, you can go off-frame. During the pandemic, ASL speakers are probably having more Zoom fatigue than the rest of us.

The two-dimensional screen was also a challenge for me. Fluent signers know what signs look like head-on as well as from other angles, but for us, Carol had to turn her hand to the side to show us a shape, then turn back to the right orientation. We got less reinforcement of the nuances of many signs than we would have if we were all in a room together. That extra reinforcement is why I’d like to take a class in person if I continue, but I don’t regret taking the class now. Signed languages are so interesting, and getting to learn little bits and pieces about Deaf culture was so interesting, and it was worth having a few extra moments of bafflement to try it out now.

By the way -- March 13 to April 15 is National Deaf History Month. The Museum at Gallaudet University has a list of Deaf history resources online if you want to spend a little time exploring.

*I’m explaining this all only as I currently understand it, and I’ve just taken the one eight-session course. If you’re learning ASL yourself, please take my explanation with a grain of salt, as I don’t want to steer you wrong.