American Sign Language Term Paper

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Linguistics 1 / Anthropology 104: Fall 2004

American Sign Language

Learning and using Sign Language will be pretty easy to do because there are so many books and web sites available that teaches it to anyone who wants to learn.

In life, people usually take things for granted like the ability to speak and hear. For the last few weeks I have been hanging out with my friend named XXXX. Until I really got to know her, I know that I sure took the ability to listen for granted. I have always seen myself as a healthy individual and my parents have always been very supportive by telling me that I'm pretty smart. So why wouldn't I take those things for granted? Along comes XXXX who is deaf and needs to communicate with her friends and family by using sign language. As a bird sits in a tree near my window, I have no problem hearing it sing. She has been deaf since early childhood and probably will never really hear any of the things that we hear every day. A plane flying by or a car zooming past will never make her turn her head. For XXXX, life is very different. This term paper is a summary of my couple of weeks of hanging out with her. I wrote the term paper with a new appreciation for what life would be like if I couldn't hear. I used to walk around town with my CD player blaring into my headset but from now on I think I will turn it down a bit. But, during our time together I did find out that being deaf does have both good and bad things about it. This repot will try to share some of those things. I also tried to give some of my opinions about the whole situation because I have honestly learned a lot of new things. For example, it is pretty hard to use sign language when you think like a person who hears and it gets a little easier when you change your way of thinking.


My first observation when I started this project was that when either a child or an adult is deaf, more than just that person is affected. For example, when I first visited XXXX, I saw the yellow triangle shaped sign on her street that said: 'Slow Down -- deaf child in area.' I bet I saw that sign a hundred times but never thought about it or how important it was. When a child is deaf or even hard of hearing, it affects the family and the immediate community. Each has to take a number of things into consideration.

Some of these things include how and where a deaf child is supposed to play, the day-to-day living of the deaf child including the schools and where to work in the future, how to discipline a deaf child, learning to communicate with that child through sign language or special equipment and most of all, coming to terms with the fact that the child is deaf. XXXX is lucky because she has a family that is supportive and well off enough financially to support the handicap of deafness. You also can't take for granted that she lives in a nice and safe community where her neighbors are friendly, helpful and supportive.

American Sign Language

XXXX uses sign language to communicate with her friends and family. I used to think that pro and college football teams that waggled in plays from the sideline using signs was pretty amazing until I watched a full conversation with XXXX and her family. There are various types of sign language just like there are accents in the English language. XXXX uses the American Sign Language style and she signs with her mother and father and little brother. American Sign Language is pretty complex. The language is a 'visual-spatial' language that is used mainly in the United States and English-speaking Canada. The language is a linguistically complete and natural language.

I have to be honest, when I started this project as you can see from my hypothesis, I thought that I would just go online and start signing that day. XXXX and her family are fun to watch using sign because they are communicating at a speed that is too wild. I thought I would be talking to her in sign language throughout the time we were going to spend together but on my first night online I saw that this was not going to be as easy as I thought.

When I realized that a deaf child could sing using sign language I figured that I would use that approach. I thought I would just learn some songs in sign and that would show the world how easy this was going to be. It turned out to be pretty challenging. I went to a site to try to download some songs in sign so that I could practice. "Unfortunately, because of the nature of graphically and grammatically complex signs, it is uneasy to describe a sign in graphically accurate details via email as well as it is time-consuming. For a phrase or song, describing a set of words/signs or sentences via email is not provided." (Handspeak)

American Sign Language is well represented on the internet and in libraries. You can take classes in schools like community colleges or special schools for the deaf and in some cases through community services or the local Recreation Council. Like the English language, the American Sign Language base is in constant flux. Just like the English language, they had to add terms for the internet and web sites and any new thing or technology. "New word definitions are being added, and this will soon bring the total number of American Sign Language terms to more than 1270! Also included is the basic alphabet and numbers 1-10." (American Sign Language)

What you really can't get on the internet or from books is that sign language incorporates facial expressions and arm or body gestures to make up for some limitations. "In Sign Language, facial expression including the raising or lowering of the eyebrows while signing and body language are integral parts of communicating. These actions help give meaning to what is being signed, much like vocal tones and inflections give meaning to spoken words." (American Sign Language) Another important part of sign language is that when you read it in a book or see it online you have to know from whose perspective you are seeing the examples. I was literally signing to myself by accident with the few simple gestures I learned but XXXX straightened me out with a laugh. This must be happening all the time because at the American Sign Language web page it clearly says that the sign symbols are meant to be viewed from the perspective of the viewer and not the person signing.

How it works

In my research, I found that American Sign Language does not share the grammatical rules we take for granted in the English language. Sure, there are sentences and phrases that are common. But, the hardest part about signing in American Sign Language is that when you use the language, you are basically speaking a foreign langue compared to English. I thought that American Sign Language would simply be a translation of English. You know, like a mime doing repeating the dictionary.

But, American Sign Language uses topic-comment syntax as opposed to English which uses Subject-Object-Verb. American Sign Language in the terms of syntax is actually more like spoken Japanese than it is English. So, realizing that I would not be learning Japanese or American Sign Language overnight, I reconsidered my hypothesis. My next thought was that I would just spell the things I wanted her to know. Ah, no way. Having a conversation by spelling each word is like using Morris Code every time we spoke. The alphabet is easy to learn (see Appendix A) but using just conversing with the alphabet doesn't form words or sentences in a fast or efficient enough way.

Another misconception about American Sign Language is that it is simply a series of hand motions. Although there are plenty of hand movements, hand gestures are only one part of the big picture. A person using American Sign Language also needs to add facial features like raising an eyebrow or curling the lip and mouth to properly sign certain things. The facial and other types of features are a crucial part of the American Sign Language grammatical system. Other things that the hearing person would take for granted when learning American Sign Language is that when describing places or people that are not present the signer has to use the space around himself to give location. With all of these nuances, American Sign Language is very complex.

To make matters worse, XXXX goes to private school and she told me that there are kids from other countries…[continue]

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