I spent the past weekend attending a crash course in American Sign Language (ASL). Dustin and I have been learning and using ASL for about a year now, and while our vocabulary has gotten to be pretty good, we know we’ve been missing the Bigger Picture. We just didn’t know quite how big that was until this weekend.
We started learning ASL when a deaf man moved into our congregation. The lone woman who knew any ASL begged anyone who was available to start learning so we could help her interpret talks at the hall. About eight of us joined up and she began teaching us informally. A few who were able signed up for a night class at with Communication Services for the Deaf, and they let us mooch off their class notes. Within about a month, we had started signing small parts at the meetings, and here – a year later – most of us are comfortable enough to translate parts up to 30 minutes long with reasonable coherence.
We knew what we were doing was at least acceptable because Alan – our deaf friend – was picking up what was going on without having to look too confused. If there’s one thing that deaf people generally seem to do, it’s tell you straight out when they don’t know what you’re trying to tell them. So we felt pretty good. But we also knew it wasn’t the best because we have DVDs provided by the Watchtower society – primarily translations of the Bible – that are so astonishing in their beauty and eloquence that it makes the rest of us feel kind of like kindergarteners. I suppose that’s only fair – we’ve only been doing this for a year. But for all we watched them, it was not at all clear how we could move up to that level.
And then some arrangements were made to have a group of people come up from Colorado to help us out.
Seeing amazing sign language on a DVD is one thing – seeing someone stand right in front of you who is that good is absolutely amazing. Alan has only learned ASL recently himself, so he was just as impressed as the rest of us.
What we learned this weekend (trying to cram a five-month course into three days) was that more than anything, ASL is about the pictures you create rather than the words you know. Facial expression, classifying people and objects by location and shape, and did I mention facial expression? are SO important. I can’t quite express the amazement I feel having finally grasped this concept. It makes so much sense and seems so very simple in principle…
But now our friends from Colorado have gone home, leaving us (for now) to try and put principle into practice on our own. I’m really excited about the challenge. Learning a new language is such a rewarding and terrifying experience, all at the same time. This is the second time I’ve done it once before with any dedication (French), and I feel like I’m standing now on the brink between adequacy and actual competence, and it’s exciting.