A few years ago, my friend Val introduced me to American Sign Language. At the time, she was taking courses in college and looking for someone with whom she could practice. Barely remembering the finger-spelling alphabet from my days as a Girl Scout, I volunteered. Ever since, I’ve been hooked.
For those new to the world of American Sign Language (or ASL), it is a non-spoken language, developed for use by the Deaf, that makes use of one’s hands, facial expressions, and body movements to communicate. It is not mime. ASL has vocabulary, grammar, syntax, structure, and rules of usage- just like any of the spoken languages. But, in my opinion, unlike the spoken languages, ASL is uniquely beautiful. If you’ve ever watched a fluent ASL signer, you can attest to the grace and elegance that Deaf signers possess.
After helping my friend practice, I decided to take a few ASL courses offered by my union. In the course of my studies, I’ve also come across some amazing websites, such as Lifeprint and ASLpro. I am still a beginner, and have quite a long way to go to become fluent. Nevertheless, I practice signing whenever I get the chance.
For the last few years, using sign language with babies and toddlers has become rather trendy. Check out Amazon’s list of baby sign books. It’s no wonder why. Young children are able to comprehend language much earlier than they are physically capable of forming words. Sign language has also proven to be an effective method of communicating with special needs children.
Since many parents and caregivers seem keen to use sign language with their young children, and I’m always looking for an excuse to sign, I’ve begun using some basic signs in my early childhood programs. For example, when a child helps clean up, I sign THANK YOU or GOOD. [Note: Since I can’t link directly to the ASL dictionaries, check out Lifeprint or ASLpro for instructions and demonstrations of signs]. Sometimes I ask if everyone is feeling HAPPY. Other signs that work easily into story programs are READ, BOOK, and MORE. Animal signs are also easy to remember and fun to integrate into simple songs. For example, when singing Old MacDonald, I can make the signs for the individual animals. [The sign for CAT, for example, is made by using your thumb and forefinger to pull imaginary whiskers away from your upper lip.]
I make it a point to let the parents know that I am not a fluent signer- but simply a student of the language. I feel that it is important to respect the history of the language and the history surrounding Deaf culture. I use only ASL signs (as opposed to Signed English or other forms of sign language). I also encourage parents or children interested in learning more to check out relevant books on learning ASL.
I’ve recently been in contact with a local community center that offers Saturday field trips for Deaf children. We are in the process of negotiating a good afternoon for the kids to visit the library. I’ve been brushing up on my conversational signs, hoping to at least give a basic introduction to the library in ASL. Wish me luck!