American Sign Language

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.

12 Responses to American Sign Language

  1. Eric says:

    Amen to that, Al. I contracted tinnitus following a traffic collision a few years ago. Most of the time I am able to tune it out amid the ambient noises of life, but the loss of the quiet times, something I had ever been searching, is so much more painful than the neck and back pains which have long since healed…

  2. Dave L says:

    Great little vinette, Al. Amazing what doors can be opened by simply turning the knob. We become more willing to follow our curiosities as we grow older with less to risk – is that it?

    I was surprised at the knowledge that signing is different with each language as it seems so much of what I’ve seen here seems to mimic the action implied by the word, or collection of them.

    • allevenson says:

      I expected her to tell me it was universal. Apparently SL is guided by the word sound more than the meaning.

      Anything exciting happening in CWC or NorCal?


  3. Alan stowell says:

    Capitan Al!
    That was the BEST of all your blogs!
    Perhaps because I have often thought of learning SL.
    Some years ago I met a gal from Kentucky, online. We were in a chat-room and she yelled at some guy: And said “I am deaf…not dumb!” I was attracted to that spunk!
    I started chatting with her and we developed one of the greatest of all my relationships.
    She owned and operated a beauty salon in Kansas. She had a 3 yr old son.
    One day she e-mailed that she had sold her beauty salon to have a very delicate operation operation on her hearing and that it might be successful and might not. 3 weeks later she phoned me….sounded drunk and thick. I was the second person she had spoken to after talking to her son!!! I cried!
    She was going to come sailing with me, with her son, ( I was driving a 120′ MY) but figured her inner ear might not be up to it.
    Leter She married an Indy car driver and I lost touch. But I am still thinking of learning sign…in Tlaxcala!
    Now stimulated by your great article!

  4. Tanya grove says:

    I’ve been exploring the restorative power of quiet this weekend. I’ve been reading, writing, hiking, and hot tubbing at this Eco-retreat. I have talked a bit with my husband, but he’s napping a lot, leaving me in a rather blissful silence…

  5. Colleen Rae says:

    Thank you Al for that wonderful little vinette, Indeed, it was one of your best blogs. I too was surprissed that SL was not universal in same signs.
    You always were a great one for striking up conversations. You have a million stories inside your head you could write about from your experiences.
    Surprising that the woman didn’t sense you staring at her since some of her senses must have been increased.

  6. karen wittgraf says:

    That’s it! In reading this blog, I am reminded of the great conversations I had standing in front of the Manhattan Club. Smoking is a horrible habit, I know- but, for once, it was the device with which to meet people. The people I met saw me as their comrade in shameful behavior so we clicked immediately..a model from NYC, a couple from Finland, a happy loud couple from Argentina, a woman from France. We gathered there and exchanged thoughts three times a day and it made the trip a memorable one for me.

  7. Carol says:

    Was on BART the other evening watching a middle-aged couple doing sign language. I thought, “What a beautiful way of communicating!” Their faces where as animated as their hands. Their fingers where flying around so fast, I couldn’t imaging how they could read each other.

  8. Karen Goucher says:

    I have a wonderful friend….she was first a neighbour and since has moved from the street,
    then became my gardener and now she is a special friend. She has added so much to my
    life and she happens to be an able, hearing challenged person. My favourite times with her
    are when we scurry in language together. I come alive with hand signals, facial expressions
    that I normally would not perform. We manage beautifully and she is an expert at my lips. I
    admire her abilities and find she is not bothered by her shortcomings as they are
    made up in areas that are far more spectacular. I love my friend Susan. She teaches me

  9. Vickie says:

    I had a deaf college roommate who sometimes turned her aides to the off position when the dorm got too noisy. While I am most grateful for my hearing, there were a few study times I found myself wishing I, too, could have blocked out the world.

    There are some state universities that now recognize ASL as a foreign language. Perhaps more will communicate with this beautiful language in the future.


  10. Marny says:

    Gosh, sorry to have not found this sooner! But glad I did.

    As a kid, we were friends with another kid who was deaf – he wanted to teach all of us to sign but we told him No. We all understood what he was saying, as if he had an accent that was not like ours.

    As I grew up and we all dispersed in different directions of our lives, I was sorry for not listening to our friend who wanted to teach us to be bilingual. Then I met my wonderful husband Dale and had the opportunity to take classes in ASL!

    I did well with the alphabet – and was doing pretty well in class. Then I got a part in a play and found that I couldn’t memorize two different things. My ASL went by the way side, but I continued to work my fingerspelling, even showed Dale how to also – thinking we might need it across a crowded room. His finger shapes made some letters difficult – like the Y. When he did it, he said ‘oh look, I have a disability.’

    When we went to Singapore in 1995, I spotted 2 young men signing and immediately went up to them and waved hello and signed my name to them. Oh boy! They were sooooo happy to see someone Caucasian signing! Oooops … I had to let them know that I was/am a novice – so they just read my lips and I understood their accents when they spoke to me. (thank you, childhood friend!)

    Same scenario in Narita Airport in Tokyo — a young girl signing with her mother. I signed my name and they were delighted — but quickly understood that I don’t speak Japanese any better than I sign ASL-American. But they smiled and we were all happy to have had a couple of nice moments of communication.

    Now when I watcher Signers at theaters I can understand just a bit – similar to what I understand in Spanish and Hebrew and German. It’s fun and I wish I was multi-lingual as was my mom when she came to the USA – and was told by Immigration to speak only English. Oh well.

    Thank you for sharing your bookstore experiences!!

    Gentle as you go,
    who didn’t expect to take up so much finger spaces …

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