Why everyone should learn ASL

This past quarter I decided to take ASL by Rick Mangan on campus. Why I decided to take it, I’m not really sure. ASL has always interested me a little bit and I needed a couple more credits anyways to get my degree and so I figured, “Why not?” and signed up for it with my friend. I did not, however, expect to come out of it with a love for the language and a desire to never speak again. Learning ASL was simultaneously everything and nothing that I expected. I have taken French 1 on four separate occasions so to say that I struggle with new languages is an understatement but for some reason, ASL just clicked in my head. Although I think that the teacher was partly responsible for this, the elegance of the language easily came into play.

Contrary to popular belief, ASL is not simply a different form of English, it is its own language with it’s own grammatical rules and guidelines. The easiest example of this is the word “no.” In English, “no” can be used in almost any situation, as a response to a question, saying you don’t believe something and many more but in ASL there are multiple different signs for the word “no” based on whether you are responding to a yes or no question, a number-based question, and so on and so forth.

One of my favorite things, however, about ASL is that it isn’t just about what a person is doing with their hands. A lot of the conversation is displayed in the facial expressions. For example, when you are signing, “I don’t understand,” “I understand,” and “Do you understand?” You are doing the same thing with your hand but your facial expression completely turns the meaning around. Because of this, I have found that in my limited experience of the deaf world that people are a lot more expressive when you’re signing with them, which can make having a simple conversation a lot more interactive.

As a part of a requirement for my class, I am expected to participate in events called “Culture Contact,” which is where, outside of class, I have to go to an event where no one is allowed to speak. The first time I went to an event like this I was terrified. I have only been taking ASL for one quarter and the concept of trying to talk with someone who had done more than that was scary. However, I found myself loving going out and talking to people without using my voice.

One specific experience that I will never forget was when I was at a restaurant and waiting in line to order food when I noticed the people behind me signing. I didn’t understand what they were signing about because I wasn’t anywhere near good enough to sign at full speed but I still managed to turn around and talk to the couple waiting in line with their daughter. At first, when I tried to begin signing with them they got so excited that I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying but once I told them that I was a student who was new to ASL they were willing to take things slow and take their time communicating with me.

As a hearing person, I never realized how hard it must be to live in our world without being able to hear it. And although I still do not understand and won’t pretend that I do, speaking with some people who live in a deaf community as well as learning about deaf history has taught me how ridiculous this situation has become. Even though great strides have been made, deaf people are still treated poorly and discriminated against way too often in a society that claims to be as progressive as we do. I know that when I was in third grade I managed to learn the cursive alphabet and I can’t help but think what the world would be like if I had spent that time learning the ASL alphabet instead. Although it’s not a cure-all or by any means a solution to a widely out of hand issue, it would at least be a relatively easy step in the right direction. Our world is not simply made up of people who can hear, and it’s about time that we stopped acting like it was.