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Date: July 11th, 2009 10:07 am (UTC)

Hearing problems (not audiological)

Talk about novels... it took quite a while to read this post. Both of you, sami and lindra, are well read and very fine writers. I enjoyed reading this post because it so closely resembles what I've been learning about Deaf / ASL the last three years.

I am a hearing person who has wanted to learn ASL for 20 years. Buck Rogers has a show about a deaf captive with whom Buck was able to communicate, to the surprise of his 24th-century companion. I went around the corner to the local library (grew up in a town with four streets) and borrowed the available ASL dictionary. "I can read English," I thought. "How hard can it be to learn ASL."

I learned the word "want." Not that I tried very hard, but none of the other words stuck. I never met a deaf person, so my desire remained dormant until an opportunity swung my way to regularly see a group of ASL users in a local congregation. For six months I attended every Sunday and didn't get ONE thing out of it.

They had an ASL DVD, no captions, each month that was discussed at the meetings without voicing. It was amazing and frustrating at the same time. I've learned English, Spanish, and dozens of computer programming languages. Why couldn't I pin this language down?

Watching the DVDs I started to notice patterns of production. I made my own kind of Stokoe notation, but simpler, and started to practice some signs. I was able to approach some of the hearing participants before or after the meeting and ask what a sign meant. It was finally starting to make sense, but only because I developed a script on which to hang an ASL orthography.

After my circumstances changed again and could not attend those meetings, I decided to attend the local community college's ASL class given by an older CODA. Because I had a means by which to write down the signs she gave us, I was easily the best practiced student of the group. I could start to see how signs were related to each other.

After six months of ASL classes I decided to switch my circumstances back and re-attend those congregation meetings. This time, I could start to get something out of it. After a year of lessons and practice, I was understanding about half of what was said.

By this time I started to use my script to write whole sentences. By reading those over and over I could really make out the ASL grammar being used. I've been able to write down a story, even though I did not understand all the words, and read it back to the audience intelligibly.

sami: I read a post by a deaf person who talked about how, despite the fact that she could write in English well, it felt like an unnatural second language to her.

I read another Deaf person's comment along the same lines. Those with no audiological background have no "sound-it-out" tools with which to make reading easy, or possibly as much fun. I love reading aloud to my kids, and my kids learn to love reading from those shared experiences. If a parent of a Deaf child never tries to make reading enjoyable, it becomes just another chore. Good reading literacy and writing literacy help the free-flow of thoughts from mind to paper and paper to mind.

sami: I've read and been told that sign language is not, in fact, a mapping of English to gestures; the syntax and modes of expression are actually different.

sami: What sort of doesn't make sense to me is that, therefore, sign doesn't have an accompanying orthography.

sami: Ideally, developing a written form of sign language should be done by someone who is fluent with it and grew up with it.

much later post by lindra: There is a huge class/time/power equation thing going on that you don't seem to be taking into account quite as much as I feel is necessary -- there is a amount of security in the language that is required, and sign anguages are still under great, great pressure.

The catch-22 going on here is not that Deaf people would prefer to never delegate their communication to a written page / printed sign / typed e-mail, but rather that they're so overwhelmed getting DAILY chores of communication with the entire society around them that consideration of such would never reach the surface. Only occasionally, only by some who has the privileges you and I take for granted to know and do so much with so many. But within this person(s) must also combine the ability to create a brief enough script for writing (as opposed to SignWriting pictograms or Stokoe's tersity), the ability to make coding compromises, the desire to catalog and publish an orthographic work, and the public relations abilities to get a LOT of other Deaf people excited about it.

The other Deaf person's post from last year mentioned this:

When writing a novel or story, "I search for a word to better fit the message I had in mind. The message was an image, an idea, a thought, yet it was without language. There were two languages I knew: ASL and English. ASL was my main language; therefore, the thought was picked up by ASL. Since ASL has no formalized written system, English took the reins and became the vehicle of passage from thought to written word."

This is apparently an unusual need for Deaf. To write a novel, as sami pointed out, was an unusual need for English speakers before Gutenberg's day. What I saw in your conversation was two sides of the same coin.

sami: Where I guess I have... I don't know, maybe an idealistic streak in play? is that it rubs me the wrong way to say that this means deaf people shouldn't have everything hearing people have, including a native written language.

lindra: And to me, the right to a natural language of the heart, where one can communicate at all, full stop, the end, is the threat and concern.

lindra is talking about the reality. sami is talking about the possibility. The pain comes from seeing so many possibilities pass you by, the opportunity to talk to neighborhood kids in your native language, the opportunity to do errands in your native language, the opportunity to have public entertainment in your native language language, and THEN having another opportunity you missed pointed out.

sami, I am saying that you were being insensitive to someone's plight. I ought to know after all the times I've done so. And I'm saying that I'm truly impressed with how open a mind you have to think about others' needs and want to know how they feel. You are not a pile of fail. You tried to reach out to someone and that someone communicated back. That is an incredible success!

lindra, with the few young and old Deaf people I have had an opportunity to meet I can absolutely see what you are talking about. Helen Keller said, "Blindness cuts you off from things. Deafness cuts you off from people." Babies absolutely must have people in their lives, and a deaf baby born to hearing parents is immediately disadvantaged.

The baby does not need fixed, it's the society that's broken. Now that I know enough ASL to see what I've been missing, I feel very jilted that this was not MY first language. No one should be without a manual language. Although I sometimes use English word order with my hearing children when I'm signing something I need them to understand clearly, I can already see that they are making this manual language a part of how they think.

sami, perhaps your goal is correct for the initially wrong reason. First all people need to be bilingual manual / spoken, and then bilingual written / written. But it would be easier to get all these spoken / written people to learn their first manual language if that manual language had an orthography. Then the production of a sign could be written down, compared with other signs, published in a non-video format, etc. for the assistance of teaching these hearing people. I am like you in that I learn and remember better from reading forward and backward on a page of text than listening to an audio book.
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