I’ve finished my first week of intensive American Sign Language (ASL) classes: six hours a day in class, an hour or two doing homework, and of course seeing people signing all over campus. So where have I got? I can say things like My name is (and fingerspell my name), Where do you come from, and How did you get here?
How did I get here?
I still have no idea, none at all, how tenses work, and I find it all but impossible to read fingerspelling. It just goes by too fast. After videotaping myself, I discovered to my chagrin that I couldn’t read my own fingerspelling. Did I really make that second o in my last name? I had to slow down the video to see that, yes, I had.
When they say “immersion” they mean it: no spoken English is used at all. There’s occasional writing on the board, and that’s it. It’s like figuring out a giant logic puzzle. Fortunately, I’ve got a good teacher: he’s funny, expressive, patient.
On the first day of class he showed a picture of a drill on the board, and made the sign for drill: the right index finger going through two fingers of the left hand. I was puzzled. Why teach us the sign for drill on the first day? Did woodworking hold a special place in deaf culture? Then he did a few signs we already knew, like name, and then drill again. Drill, I thought. Drill wood. Huh? Then he did a new sign, the right fist sliding against the left index finger, thumb pointing toward the body. Drill. New sign. Drill. New sign. I got that light-bulb aha moment — the new sign must mean a language drill. The sign means practice!
And then there’s the textbook, which almost never gives the definitions of individual signs, along with its CD-ROM, whose videos aren’t translated into English. You get an outline of the meaning of the conversation, and that’s it. You have to figure out what the signs mean on your own.
Of course, I cheated. I bought a dictionary. But often I can figure out the meaning on my own.
“ASL evolves,” my instructor sometimes says when explaining variants of a sign. The numbers 1 through 20 are all signed on one hand. But he signed the numbers 16 through 20 differently than the video. “Old people do it that way,” he signed to us, when we looked puzzled. (The sign for old is the fist descending from the chin, as if stroking a beard.) The video was done in 1993. “ASL evolves.”
ASL may evolve in a much more protean way than spoken languages, because it has no written form to fix it. A language unmoored from the page, busily reinvented by each new generation.
The first three days of class were a delight, a hummingbird whirl of puzzle-solving. The last two I’ve felt slower, stupider, not getting signs I would have gotten before, my hands not being able to form letters they could before. I think my mind is overloaded. Overheated. Tired. Too many signs. Need the weekend to rest and let my subconscious unblock the channels.
I look around the cafeteria and think: Fifty or a hundred years ago, many of the people here would have received no meaningful education in any language, which would have condemned them to a marginalized life. People with IQs of 130 pushing brooms. To earlier eras Gallaudet would seem like a paradise: bright clean buildings, classrooms full of students, and people conversing endlessly about whatever they want.
It’s not a paradise. Descend below the surface and you see a community trying to raise its academic standards, improve its graduation rate, and – most of all – groping for a new mission in a world where more and more deaf kids are getting cochlear implants and going to mainstream high schools and colleges. That puts the language, the culture, the university – in short, everything I see around me – at risk of vanishing.
But as David Crystal says in his book Language Death, which I’m reading now, each human language carries with it a unique and valuable way of looking at the world: a fresh set of perspectives for describing and meeting human needs. ASL is a visual language in a society dominated by the image, the icon, the picture. And, to turn the parallelism around, it’s a community-oriented language in a society where communities are falling apart.
Can ASL do something for the world that is unique, fresh, new, necessary?
It already has, of course. It’s had a profound impact on linguistics. Parents use it to communicate with their infants, whose motor skills mature sooner than their vocal skills. But these are niche impacts. Can ASL change English itself? Or find a new home in the technological infrastructure of our society, guaranteeing not only its own survival but also that of the culture that created it?
I don’t know. My working hypothesis is that it can.
How, I don’t know yet.
I think of the Jews, who prospered despite medieval repression by developing skills – such as banking – that were forbidden to their Christian neighbors. I think of Apple, which prospered not by playing the PC market better, but by creating entirely new markets.
I’m hoping that in the next ten months, new ideas will emerge.