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Learning an Unspoken Language!

by Aujene Jecole

When I first walked into the classroom I thought American Sign Language was just an awesome way of communication without verbally talking. Although, that is true I was amazed to find out a brief history of American Deaf Culture. I noticed when we first began the "D" in Deaf was enunciated. Typically when words are capitalized they are associated or about something or someone specific. The capitalization represents community and the word "deaf" is generally used as medical terminology. This helped me to understand the importance of respecting American Sign Language. Generally, people who are unaware of American Deaf Culture tend to adhere to strange behaviors without even recognizing them. This class alone has broadened my perspective on how to act accordingly and how to acceptingly create opportunities for communication with people who are Deaf. The American Deaf Culture is not just a lifestyle for people who are deaf, but it is a community sharing struggles, connections, and traditions.

Before committing to learning American Sign Language I always wondered how fluent signers could understand the language so easily. I always imagined the struggles I would face trying to understand the emotions of someone strictly based on hand. movement. I soon learned that your eyes and face play an entric part in being grammatical correct when you express yourself. It was demonstrated to us in class that when you change a facial expression, it can alter the meaning of the sign and change the context of the statement. Facial expressions, head movements, and eye gazes play a huge role in American Sign Langauge. Combing these elements helps American Sign Language make use of space for contrast, places, things, and time concepts. My goal is that with more practice, my peripheral view will expand so that my brain can grow accustomed to naturally processing these elements.

To fully emerge yourself into American Deaf Culture, it is imperative to acknowledge the history of American Sign Language. Most people think American Sign Language is an English translation, but American Sign Langauge was developed independently. Historically, American Sign Language has been found to be related to French Sign Language. Coming into this class on the first day I assumed that American Sign Language was a universal language, but soon I discovered that culture influences sign language and that there are differentiations of sign language in every region on this planet. There was a time when American Sign Language didn't exist, (insane right!) but that necessarily didn't mean deaf people were non-existent. In fact, Thomas Hopkins noticed a deaf girl named Alice Cogswell. Her parents didn't know how to teach her and they had pretty much given up hope. Thomas Hopkins on the other hand was determined to find a way to communicate with Alice. He is famously known for creating a portal of understanding by drawing words and pictures in the dirt! Once Thomas Hopkins discovered how to teach Alice using a stick and dirt, he was eager to learn more himself. Thomas Hopkins was lead to journey for an institution that could help expand his understandings and teachings. He came across a Deaf School in England called, Braidwood Academy in England. They slammed the doors on him and he was forced to continue searching for a person or program that wouldn't reject him. He soon met Laurent Clerc, in France, and eventually got him on the same page, so that they could both travel back to the United States to freely teach deaf people. It's shocking how American Sign Language literally started from a stick and actual dirt!

One of the most helpful tips I learned is why it is important to maintain eye contact. For the American Deaf Community eye contact signifies that you are listening. To not have eye contact is the same as ignoring. People who lack understanding of American Deaf Culture tend to do distracting things like bending down or walking around someone while they are conversating in American Sign Langauge. I learned that it's okay to pass through casually. Taking the time to go around someone may distract them even more. It is also considered rude to watch a signed conversation. Even in some circumstances using your voice can be considered an offense. It's important to remember that in a hearing world accommodations for deaf people are not always prioritized as they should be, so understanding and respecting these guidelines will make a beneficial difference.

By the end of this semester, my goal is to master fingerspelling and to also grasp an understanding of the American Deaf Culture. I admire how strong and gracefully Deaf people conduct themselves even when the circumstances are not in their favor. From now on I will always recognize that deaf people have a voice too! I look forward to discovering more about the struggles, connections, and traditions of the American Deaf Culture.

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