Musings of a Multilingual 5 | Learning ASL

A – B – C – D (photo from The Homeschool Post)

ASL, or American Sign Language is the sign language commonly used in Vancouver and across most of North America (the notable exception would be Quebec where they use Langue Signe du Quebec).  Because of my line of work with the Deaf community, I was required to learn sign language.  My first job in Toronto actually held ASL classes onsite.  So I was lucky enough to have 3 full weeks of classes in ASL as a part of my regular work routine.

I wasn’t sure what learning a fifth language would do to me.  However, ASL is a manual language.  So I had to remember hand shapes, finger spelling, and hand movements.  Then I had to attach meaning to all of these things.

One of the basics for American Sign Language is learning the English alphabet in sign language.  One of my former practicum supervisors who was fluent in ASL told me he used to just practice every time he had a chance.  He would ride the bus and finger spell any words he would read on the ads or on signage outside the bus.  That was good advice for practicing my fingerspelling.  Although you kind of have to do it discretely or else people wonder what you are doing with your hands.

Remembering back to when I learned Mandarin, I thought I might have second language interference when learning ASL.  However, I think because ASL is a manual language, it must be using a different section of my brain to store the ASL vocabulary.  So there was no competition for brain space when I learned ASL.  I don’t know if anyone else has had that experience.

One of the more difficult things about learning ASL is the word order.  Word order must be presented in a visual manner where you set up the background and people in a situation before talking about the action.  So to have proper “grammar,” you have to think visually and set up the setting and people in the conversation. You can assign a space to a person who is not present and whenever you point to that space, it is understood that you are talking about that person.

There is also what I call “accents” in ASL where one person signs slightly different to the next person.  I’ve seen people sign the letter “h” differently.  I was taught that the the fingers pointing out are horizontal, but I’ve seen people point their fingers more vertically.  I thought it was a different letter altogether until the person mouthed the letter to me.  So my receptive skills definitely need work.

If you are in the Vancouver area and are interested in learning ASL, I would recommend contacting the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Studies department at Vancouver Community College.  If you are in Ontario, you can see if there are any ASL classes offered by the Canadian Hearing Society near to you.

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