From English to ASL to English

Shawn Jackson Deaf And Deaf Culture 0 Comments

For a newly deafened teen or adult, learning American Sign Language (ASL) can sometimes be daunting. It is new language to learn that shares the words and spellings of English but totally different grammar.

Image via Lifeprint

Image via Lifeprint

One of the most common misconceptions about ASL is that it’s just English said with hand signs. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a fully unique and functional language that requires an adjustment, but no more than any other language requires. In fact, it has some grammatical cues in common with some of the Romance languages (Italian, Spanish, French, etc) that you may have learned in school.

For instance, the order of words in a sentence is largely dependent on what your emphasis is on. Is it subject or  object? I won’t go into it all, but this link does a great job at explaining the grammatical rules of ASL. Another thing to be aware of is that “a”, “an” and “the” are not used in ASL.

Wrapping your mind around ASL requires you to look at the message and not just the words. Let’s take this simple sentence and infer its meaning: “I go town down”. Here, the object is put in front of the subject. Even though the words “town” and “down” are switched, you can see that the message is about the person going to a section of town. In this instance, downtown. It can get to be a bit tricky when you get deeper into the language. The true trick is to not think in English.

What I mean by this is, forget (but remember) the rules of the English language and look at the message of what is being said. Not only will this make it easier for you to learn the language, not just the signs, of ASL, but it will make it easier for you to self-translate written or signed ASL into English for yourself or others.

Now, conversely, there is a version of Sign Language practiced in North America called Pidgin Sign English, or PSE. What this is is basically an offshoot of ASL where the signs and fingerspelling is used in the order of American English instead of traditional ASL. This is a great way for the newly deaf or Hard of Hearing to communicate via an interpreter at, say, a public speaking engagement or an interview.

The only downside to learning only PSE, in my opinion, is that, largely, communication with the deaf community is harder to do because of the fact a good many don’t learn the English language. While that is changing in some schools, to learn both grammatical systems, it isn’t universal. So no matter how many episodes of Switched at Birth you watch, the language they use the majority of the time isn’t the language most deaf people use, which is ASL.

It would behoove you to learn ASL first which would naturally give you the ability to also converse in PSE, since English would be your first language, making it easier to switch it up depending on your audience.

“In life, risk is part of the equation…”

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