Washington, DC

Language Learning and Me: American Sign Language

Claire Handscombe

Image by fizkes, purchased via Shutterstock

When we talk about language learning, it’s easy to forget that not all language is oral. Around half a million people in the U.S. and Canada use American Sign Language.  Laura is one of them, and has worked as an ASL interpreter in and around Washington, DC.

Why American Sign Language?

When I was 13 a friend was taking sign language classes.  I’d ask what she was saying and she wouldn’t tell me.  I got frustrated and decided to learn for myself.  I started taking classes in high school from an interpreter who was teaching for our homeschool group.  My best friend took classes with me.  That was useful because we could practice outside of class.

Have you learned other languages before?

Only my native English.

What are the particular challenges of ASL, particularly when compared to the other languages you speak?

ASL was actually easier for me than other languages I’ve tried to learn because it’s a visual language.  I’m a visual learner, so seeing the handshapes and motions made sense to me.  I’ve also taught ASL, and I’ve seen this isn’t true for everyone.  People who are auditory learners seem to struggle more with ASL.  They can’t watch what I’m doing with a sign and copy it.  Their hands get twisted up and backwards.  I’ve also seen students struggle because they think that ASL is just an extension of English.  They can’t grasp that ASL grammar is completely different from English and they can’t think in English while signing correctly in ASL.  We all struggle with fingerspelling too.  You have to look for a pattern for how a word looks, but we tend to try to look for individual letters when someone fingerspells a word.  It’s impossible to see them all that quickly, so we don’t catch the full word.

How did you go about learning ASL?

I took classes from age 14-22 off and on.  I took classes from an interpreter, from a Deaf friend, and finally from Deaf teachers in college.  I also was involved in the Deaf community from the beginning.  Classes were great for grammar and vocabulary, but hanging out with Deaf friends was imperative for putting it all together and making it flow.  I also learned a lot from becoming an interpreter and being exposed to signers from all over the country.

Did it differ from how you learned the other languages?

I later learned Turkish.  It was similar, in that I needed classes for grammar.  It was different, in that I was immersed in Turkish when I lived there.  I didn’t have to seek out people to speak with there.  ASL requires becoming part of a semi-exclusionary community.  You have to really become part of it to be welcomed and accepted, and that takes a commitment.

What resources would you recommend for someone wanting to learn ASL? And what advice would you give them?

Make Deaf friends, then go to classes.  Don’t stop at the classes, but really become involved in the community.  Realize that ASL is visual, and isn’t at all similar to English.  It’s not universal, so you can’t use it all over the world.  Watch videos on youtube and get involved.

Do you still deliberately try to improve your ASL, eg by using a vocab book?

I use ASL 4-5 days a week when I’m interpreting, teaching, and hanging out with friends.  Sometimes I’ll ask about a sign for vocabulary, but it’s mostly keeping up my exposure now and actively using it.

Do you think it’s important for expats to learn the local language?

That doesn’t completely relate here, but yes, if you want to be involved in the Deaf community, then you MUST learn their language.

What’s your favourite ASL word or idiom?

TURTLE.  I can’t really describe it, but basically one hand covers the other to become the shell, and the other thumb peeks out

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC

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