In the coffee shop of a bookstore in Venice, California, I came upon a group of twenty people sitting around ten small tables arranged in a circle. From afar I could see half of them were making hand gestures.
I’ve approached bookstore meetings before. Sometimes they’re discussing a book, sometimes a topic, sometimes they’re knitting as well, but this group was signing.
I’ve always thought I’d like to learn American Sign Language so that I could communicate one-to-one with even more people than I can now.
When I saw this group, three things struck me.
One, there were eight or ten people talking at once. I suspect six or eight conversations were going on simultaneously, and people could visit different conversations for as long as they wanted or, if their interest waned, move on.
Two, these folks were far more animated—facially expressive—than the rest of us. Smiles, chuckles, quizzical gestures, pursed-lipped concentration were the punctuation that added character and multiplied the flavor.
Three, these people paid close attention to one another. They concentrated on actions, gestures, and the shapes of the words as formed on the lips.
Is it a well-kept secret that these people communicate with more nuance, enhanced subtlety, and depth of feeling than those of us advantaged with mere speech?
Two women from the group had moved to chairs near mine to engage in a private conversation. My attention was drawn back and forth from the group to the couple. I wanted to engage these women, but none of my intrusive tricks were available. Clearing my throat wasn’t going to get noticed. LOL. But neither could I catch their eyes. They stared at each other’s faces as though anything outside of their tunnel of vision faded to black. Finally, one of the women got up, and I stared at the other one, who remained seated. She didn’t look up or around, and I resorted to waving at her as though she were driving a passing car and I was stranded by the side of the road.
Once I got her attention, she was willing to talk with me. She told me half of the group were not deaf but were students. By practicing with the others they’d be able to progress through the four levels of ASL proficiency, and, ultimately, quality for employment.
People who communicate via sign are able to do so as fast as ordinary speech and much faster than keyboarding. They communicate via Skype and the video feature of cell phones. Someone who doesn’t have ASL can even communicate with a deaf person via videophone using a technology where the screen is split into three. An interpreter in the third screen signs to the deaf person and speaks aloud to the other.
“I’m AL. I travel and meet people as I go. When I find someone interesting I write about them and post it on the Internet. “
“My name is Nadia. I wear a cochlear implant.” She took off the device she wore on her ear and said, “I can’t hear a thing.”
She replaced it, “Now I can hear words. I get about 90 percent. Some words are kind of fuzzy. I think the device needs some adjustment.”
“Do you work? I asked.
“I have a donut shop. In the early days of my implant, the batteries would run down and I’d have to read lips when I waited on people. It was funny, and I often asked people to repeat themselves. Battery technology is a lot better. I learned never go anywhere without my battery charger.”
“Is sign language universal?” I asked.
“Oh, no, every language is different just like speech. I spent two years in Japan and had to learn a whole new sign language.”
She said an American word and made the American sign for it. Then translated it to the Japanese word and made a different sign. She repeated this several times.
“What did you do there for two years?”
“I was a missionary. I worked with a family who had a deaf child.”
At a pause in the conversation, she decided to return to her group.
Once again I am grateful for bookstores. You can learn a lot in them.
Later that night the noises of daily life were dialed down. I laid my head on my pillow. What remained was the continuous distant avalanche of traffic noise mixed with my tinnitus. I wished I could simply remove a device from my ear and know blessed silence.