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Reflections of an ASL Student:
-by Scott Mather

My curiosity about ASL began years ago when I first saw a hymn being interpreted. The signs were slow and graceful, and added extra meaning to the words of the hymn. I'm a musician and a conductor by training, so non- verbal expression is appealing to me.

Watching folks sign to each other was a real reality check though. The sheer speed of delivery and comprehension amazed me. And then there was fingerspelling......!

So my interest lay dormant until [one day] while browsing a bookstore, I bought a beginning ASL book and began to slowly learn the basics, one sign at a time when I had time. Next I bought some computer software and boosted my working knowledge up to about 100 signs. I started searching the web for ASL sites using Google and found a wealth of information.

About this time I got a bad chest cold and had to spend three days at home. Most of the time I sat in front of the computer on the ASL University web site, absorbing all I could as fast as I could, including the valuable historical and cultural information there. I've been hooked ever since. Most of my spare time goes to ASL.

I started out learning for the pleasure of it. It's a beautiful language, and it's been nice to discover that this 50-year-old dog can still learn new tricks. But I CONTINUE learning because of the relationships, the friendships, and the fresh insights I gain from those who speak with their hands and listen with their eyes.


 Well this was the day I decided to (gulp) make contact. I had discovered a monthly Deaf Men's Christian Breakfast in the greater Portland area. Didn't think too much about it - just got up that morning, reviewed the few signs I knew, and headed out.

 I walked into the Denny's restaurant and headed to the back room. I knew no one, nada, nobody. 40 guys were there in a big square of tables, and it was SO QUIET! *  Nervous? Yeah baby, I was about as tight as a drum and sharp as a bowling ball. I couldn't remember 1/16 of what I thought I knew.  I was temporarily blind to even   s  l  o  w   fingerspelling. My mind was too busy going AAHHHH! to think at all, let alone remember anything......I even mixed up "please" and "thank you"! The humiliation....

 ...but I didn't run.

 After an hour I settled down and relaxed and realized I was among kind and patient people. The people I sat between were perfect for me. Both were late deafened, and so interpreted what others said (not always - just when I asked them to, which was great). These two could sign and talk to me at the same time so I could begin to see *how* they were signing the signs I already knew. How different they look in actual conversation! The way the different sign's sort of meld into each other. And they can be so understated!

I guess people can mumble in any language...

 But things got better. I ended up having a conversation with one guy, Kimm, (no terp in sight). He told me how his car had been completely stripped by professional thieves! He showed me the pictures. I now know the rather violent sign for "steal".  He patiently re-spelled some words three times before I finally got them.

So very much to learn. I should be a bit discouraged. But for some reason I'm not. I'm excited.


*(Note: Every Deaf breakfast I've attended since seems positively noisy!)


I went to the Deaf service at Greater Portland Baptist Church, and have been returning to it and the Wednesday night Bible study fairly consistently since. I've made some friends. The preaching is very good, and I definitely pay attention!  :)


"I went to a play last week put on by the Northwest Theatre of the Deaf, called The Death of Silence. The company depicted each player's autobiography of their experience as Deaf within a hearing culture. It was good! I stood around and was a silent member of several different conversations, making comments occasionally. So much flows right over me still, but I try to take a very Zen approach.

I relax, and discover that parts of the conversation come into focus.  I understand more than I could consciously account for. Kind of like being out at sea but seeing an occasional glimpse of land in the distance as the swells rise and fall, confident that I'm slowly drifting toward, not away from the land."


Just registered for a beginning accelerated ASL course at Portland Community College. The course has a very good reputation among the Deaf community here, and so fills up very quickly. I feel lucky to get in. Thanks to Bill, I am entering the course with eagerness and confidence. I asked if he minded my recommending the site to everyone I meet. He said "hey bud, feel free to tattoo it on your forehead!"   

....My wife says I should settle for a bumper sticker.

So as of June 23rd, it's three months ASL boot camp. I can hardly wait.


Today I was riding my bike around the neighborhood for pleasure, enjoying the beautiful weather that has finally come to Portland. I noticed a couple ladies talking animatedly, and as I drew nearer, realized that they were signing. I waved "hi", and casually signed "gorgeous day!" The surprise and pleasure they registered as they answered "Yes, enjoy it!" ...was wonderful. It wasn't corny or awkward, stupid or forced. It was perfect...

Day one of my beginning accelerated ASL class.

Starting with this evening, it's ASL for two hours every Monday and Wednesday night at Portland Community College for the next three months. The ASL instructor is Deaf, which is GREAT. No voicing is allowed in the class. Everything must be communicated non-verbally, although the chalk board is an option if necessary. That way she can see all conversation and can correct us when we get things wrong. For an example, she told a anecdote about a former student - an elderly woman - who misled a friend as follows:
She said to her friend, that if "first" was shown on the thumb, and if "last" was shown on the little finger, then "middle" must certainly be shown on the middle finger, whereupon she proceeded to demonstrate, and flipped the bird at her friend! When the teacher pointed out her mistake and she realized what she had done, there was one red face ‘midst a classroom of hilarity!

I felt good knowing some sign going into the class, especially because she didn't hesitate a bit in plunging right in, signing as she talked. She'd write messages on the board, and on overheads, showing us the signs as she went. The vocabulary mounted up pretty quickly this way. We were given the signs for everything from "me" and "what" to "education" and "vocabulary". Some of the class members questioned certain signs based on their prior learning from other instructors and from books. She was patient with them, but I winced, remembering Bill's sage advice to accept and use the signs of the local Deaf culture you are in - especially those of your present teacher!

She seems very experienced and qualified. No wonder the PCC program has such a positive reputation for teaching ASL. When questions were signed to her by the more advanced students, she *always* answered by writing on the overhead or at the board, so everyone could understand her.

I can tell that the pace of this class will be fast, and that is exciting. One-on-one interactions with other students will be the best part. Practice is everything. I especially want better receptive skills. What good am I if I can't understand what comes back at me? I learned that the average hearing person needs to see a sign 50 times before it is committed to long term memory! Whoa.

I picked up another book yesterday: DEAF in America; Voices from a Culture - Carol Padden & Tom Humphries
Through the use of folklore, apocryphal stories, poetry, jokes, and discussion of split factions and advocacy organizations, this book shows the Deaf world as centered on something other than the ability or inability to hear. It's great so far....


It occurs to me that:

In the things that matter most, it is not the Deaf who require instruction. Better than any other people, they demonstrate how lives are made rich through community.

We hearing in America tend to have internalized the myth of the "rugged individual".
We say "if it is to be it's up to me". Deaf people know better. Isolation is anathema. They'd say "If it's up to (only) me, how can I be?"

Everyone needs companionship that goes beyond the surface interactions of "civilized" society. We may not admit it to ourselves, but we long for companionship... conversation.... affirmation.... meaning. Relationships are all that ultimately matter. Everything else is just stuff.

Sweeping generalizations maybe, but they ring true to me as I learn more of Deaf culture.


First Visit to a Deaf Social Gathering

I went to a Deaf event last week, at our local 24-hour Starbucks. It happens once a month, on the second Friday, starting at 7pm and continuing forever.

When I first arrived, there were just two Deaf people sitting at a table outside. Several of my classmates and other ASL students were inside the coffee shop huddled together talking about ASL (!). All were there because we are required to attend a certain number of Deaf events outside class. Someone suggested it was time to "get the homework done" and led the way outside toward the same two people who remained the only Deaf who had arrived. I watched in amused disbelief as eight students grabbed patio chairs and arranged them in two parallel rows not 5 feet away from these people! There they sat like a panel of judges. It was hilarious! I almost expected them to hold up scorecards. As I watched and waited for the Deaf couple to break conversation and notice their observers, I wondered how they would react to such naked scrutiny. To their credit, they took the sudden arrival of the "hearing paparazzi" in stride, greeting members of the group and carrying on polite conversation as if this was perfectly normal behavior. They asked individual students where they were studying, about their teachers, why they wanted to learn ASL, etc. etc. They were really quite wonderful about it.

During this time more people had been arriving, and within an hour the joint was jumping. I saw people I knew from all over. One from a Deaf church I visit. One from the church where I work. Two from the Deaf men's breakfast. Three from the NW Theater of the Deaf "Death of Silence" production. (I had a very interesting discussion with the director of that production.) These folks introduced me to others, and before too long I was completely immersed in conversations. What a blast!

I stayed until 2 a.m.

Interesting phenomena, fatigue. One minute you can be firing on all cylinders, processing information well, focusing and generally doing better than you thought you could at communicating. The next you become amazingly dense. The brain says "enough!" and without warning nothing makes sense. The most basic signs become inscrutable. Stupid is stenciled on your forehead.
It happened to me more than once during those seven hours.
It felt like Cinderella would have felt at the ball as the clock began to strike midnight. I had the sudden urge to back away while signing "SORRY! MIND BROKEN! CAN'T THINK NOW. BYE!"

...which I would've done had I remembered the signs.... :)


9 Deaf Culture Rules on "Beginning ASL" Classroom Survival for Hearing Students
In approximate order of importance:

1. Be early for class. Build in more time. Just be early. But if you are late, it is customary for you to briefly explain why as soon as you arrive. Wait for the teacher's attention, then explain and be seated.

2. ALWAYS KEEP ONE EYE ON THE INSTRUCTOR so that you are aware when she (or he) requires your attention. It's a good idea to follow as many signed conversations in class as you can, but don't get distracted. When once the instructor has your attention KEEP WATCHING - DON'T LOOK AWAY. When a single person breaks eye contact, the instructor sees it at once, and will stop to get your attention, find out what you missed, and restate it while everyone waits. You can consult your book later. It's also useful to practice taking notes without looking.

3. REMAIN QUIET unless the instructor asks you to use your voice (called "voicing"). If you voice in order to help someone understand what is signed, you reinforce their dependency on their ears and distract them from paying full attention to what they see. No matter how much you feel the tension increase as your classmates struggle to comprehend something by sight only, resist the temptation to voice. As a last resort he will write it on the board, the overhead, or a piece of paper.

4. Immediately raise your hand when you don't understand something.
Once you have the instructor's attention, let them know you don't understand.
Here's how: With your right fist (left fist if you are left-handed) near the side of your forehead, flick the index finger up while gently shaking your head "no". The teacher will then re-explain or explain it a different way.
Repeat as needed. Be bold! This is expected classroom behavior.

5. Resist the temptation under social pressure to say you understand if in fact you do not. Culturally, the Deaf consider this to be "conversational lying". If the instructor asks "do you understand?", tell the truth. Most Deaf will know anyway by the look on your face.

6. Focus your gaze on the chin/neck area of the person who is signing, and relax to let your peripheral vision come into play. This allows you to see the hands, while also seeing the "grammar" that is shown on the face. You will understand much more of what you see.

7. Don't chew gum, eat candy, etc. The face is an important part of your communication in ASL. Don't cover your mouth while listening. It can be misunderstood as "voicing on the sly."

8. Avoid the beginner's natural tendency to sign too large. Sign at a slow to medium speed and use clear handshapes.

9. You may have been taught to sign a certain word or concept differently from what is shown in class. This could be due to the fact that various regions and groups of people sign some words slightly differently. Or it might be that what you were shown doesn't mean what you think it means. (!) Jot it down, and be sure to see the instructor after class. No matter the outcome, sign it the way the instructor shows you. It's better not to ask another class member about it. They're here to learn like you, and it's unlikely they will understand your (signed) question, or give you a correct answer.

I am deep into my second term of ASL, and loving it. This time my teacher is hearing, but of course the class is conducted in silence.

I recently went to an event titled An Evening of Song in ASL. What a kick! Popular songs were signed by a very talented Deaf troupe. It was all volunteer, done as a benefit for a Deaf and Deaf/Blind retirement home just built here in Gresham, Oregon. (See more on this below)

I saw everything from the hilarious to the profound to the disturbing. So expressive, so talented these people were!
I was there the entire first half before I realized what my balloon was for. When they gave it to me, I thought it must have something to do with one of the songs to be signed, and so I blew mine up as I saw everyone else was doing. I sat with it in my lap. Eventually I noticed how well I could pick up vibrations through the balloon, and commented on it to a person on my left. After a long look, she told me that was what the balloon was for. (Yesssss....)

Fingerspelling is something I'm trying to work on in my spare time, like while driving. (Was pulled over late one night by a cop for swerving while driving. He saw I was sober and let me go. I didn't tell him it was because I was distracted by fingerspelling. He might have made me walk a straight line.)

Spelling smaller 2 and 3 letter phonemes is helping a lot. It's much better than focusing on individual letters. If my fingers learn the phonemes as entire units, CAT instead of C-A-T, building larger words will be much easier. The knowledge must be in the hands, not the head.

Receptive skills? That's an entirely different matter. By the time I notice the person is fingerspelling, three letters have already gone by!!
Reading fingerspelling is impossible. There, I've said it. IMPOSSIBLE!

As for the possible, I constantly see signs go by that I know I know, but whose meaning totally escapes me as they go whizzing past. Later (too late) I'll realize the meaning was something simple like "teach" or "without" or whatever.
- sigh - ...but everyone says not to give up - to give it at least a couple years.

It's best for me to just let the signs go that I don't understand - to not give them a moment's thought, but instead focus on what is still coming at me. Easier said than done.

Anyone remember those 3-D posters that were popular ten or fifteen years ago, where you had to stare just the "right way" in order to see past the surface pattern to the 3-D image? That's how it feels sometimes. If I could just tilt my head the right way, and sort of cross my eyes a bit, I'd be able to understand everything. But nope. (I never did see thing in those posters, either.)

As if that weren't enough, people have the nerve to sign in individual styles! I really feel like whining here. I mean, come on. There should be one single way to sign, which of course would be the exact way my teacher signs! Right? Makes sense to me!


What a rush!

Day before yesterday something clicked. I suddenly understand much more of what I'm seeing. For the past few months I have been pushing against a ceiling of limitation, especially as to my receptive ability (being able to understand what I see). Have been frustrated as I watch the video to "Signing Naturally" the curriculum that we use. (Am wearing out the rewind button.) Have reminded myself to be patient, to just keep trying, but I've wondered whether I might be just too "calcified" at my age to really excel at this...

Not anymore.

Others have said this is how it happens, but I didn't realize how abrupt it is - this sudden improvement in comprehension. It's like a switch being thrown. I find myself looking at the same people signing the same stuff, but now they sign so much more clearly then before!  :)

[Insert picture of bald man doing cartwheels here.]

It happened three days after I had studied intensively all day for an ASL final exam.
Hmmm....perhaps the intense push, plus the broad scope of the review, plus continued wrestling (arghh) with the Signing Naturally videos over that one day - were the catalysts.

Sure, I have a looooong way to go yet - there is much that still escapes me, and there are still plenty of times when I lose the context and have to find it again. But I feel different! There is a naturalness, a comfort with the language not there before.

Here's what happened:

I sat down at the monthly Christian Deaf Men's Breakfast yesterday morning, and a friend across the room greeted me and asked a question. I answered. He continued, I replied. We conversed! For the most part I understood him the first time. Or if I didn't get something, it took one repetition or explanation for me to get it. All this was happening in the real world, not in the "protected" classroom environment. Whoa. Big change!
Then when I went to church the next morning it was confirmed. As I sat through the 10:30 service (which was itself quite wonderful) I understood almost all the interpreting I was seeing. Time delay, different word order - none of it threw me.

I think all this has something to do with the fact that I recognize enough words quickly enough now, that there is enough meaning to establish context which then gives meaning to other signs that I would otherwise not recognize.
Sort of like playing ASL Wheel of Fortune - understand enough signs and you can anticipate the meaning of the sentence.

Having reached this contextual "ciritcal mass", I recognize the signs I do know, and realize when I see new signs I don't know, which accelerates learning of these new signs from the context. It's win win win.

Fluency here I come!


Well, last June, I finished my fourth and final term of sign language study. One year of Monday and Wednesday nights spent at the local college. I have new friends, new skills, and a long way to go still. But like a rocket escaping the Earth's gravity, the returns on my efforts are increasing steadily.

I still get frustrated when I see someone sign and don't understand what they are saying. But I've learned what to do in that case...or rather, what NOT to do.
I tell myself to stop looking at the hands, and to stop trying to understand what I see.
When I stop looking, I begin to see.
When I stop trying to understand, I start to.

The explanation has to do with the difference between the active "looking and trying" of the conscious will, and the passive "seeing and observing" of the unconscious mind.

The former pursues meaning, the latter absorbs it.

When I pursue the meaning it always eludes me. The harder I try the less I can follow. It's like those tiny "ghost specks" that float on the eye. When I try to track one it disappears. Ceasing the attempt, it reappears in my peripheral vision. Likewise, the moment I cease the attempt to understand, I begin to understand.

Pretty Zen, huh?
Okay, so if I know this, why do I so often forget it?
Because I care too much.

I want to understand. I don't want to be embarrassed. I don't want to make the other person uncomfortable. I want to follow the conversation. I don't want to ask people to repeat themselves.
I want, I don't want...that's the conscious will talking, that ham-fisted interfering well-meaning enemy of my understanding.
And when "conscious will" doesn't succeed, it trys and trys again, which makes as little sense as hitting the "Enter" key on a computer again and again when the program won't run.

So I can't afford to care. I tell myself "so what?" if someone has to repeat themselves two, three, four times... If I don't catch every sign, big deal, the meaning will come eventually.
Relaaaaax...drop the shoulders....breathe....

And sure enough, the meaning starts to come. (Very exciting!) Vigilance is necessary, however, or I fall right back into the old pattern. But lately it's becoming easier, a sort of shifting gears.

"Detach and understand."


10 things I learned from my rookie week as counselor at Deaf Camp this July:

1.  Refereeing an argument in sign language is trial by fire.

2.  Talking with one's mouth full at the table is JUST FINE! - (woo hoo!)

3.  Dreaming in sign. Yep. It happens.

4.  The most concentrated form of energy on the planet is found in the 9-year-old Deaf male child.

5.  When you have to speak but freeze up, close your eyes. It helps a lot.

6.  When a Deaf kid takes off running, and you yell HEY! COME BACK HERE! it's embarrassing.

7.  It's not easy to outrun a 9-year-old.

8.  Remember to bring your inhaler.

9.  Total immersion works.

10.  Sleep is a beautiful thing.


I received the statement below from a new friend via email, after she read this "Reflections" web log:

"Being Deaf myself and coming from a hearing family... it is always inspiring to learn new true stories of older students learning ASL. My hearing family who speaks 3 languages will not bother to learn ASL or make small attempts only to give up later again."

Why is that? Why do so many hearing people, even those who have family at stake, give up on learning ASL?

It reminds me of Aesop's fable "The Fox and the Grapes."

"One hot summer's day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. "Just the thing to quench my thirst," quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: "I am sure they are sour."

Moral: It is easy to despise what you cannot get."

Is that it? Do hearing people take a leap or two at learning ASL, decide they can't get it, and refuse to try again?

Because......... who rode a bicycle the first time they tried? Or the second?
And who just took off swimming the first time they hit the water? Pretty rare.

But most of us did learn how to bike and swim.


Because we really, really wanted to. Despite scraped knees and swallowed water, we didn't give up.
And one day it just clicked. We could stay afloat - we could stay upright on the bike. Before we couldn't. Now we could.


Not sure. Somehow our bodies learned. Our repeated, focused, conscious DESIRE to ride a bike broke through the invisible barrier. We WANTED to swim so much, that we kept at it until our brains found a way to hook up the necessary neurons and get them to fire in the right order....

Swimming, biking....and ASL?

All three require a sophisticated coordination of mind and body which doesn't come naturally. Before we learn how they all seem impossible. Afterwards it's hard to remember when we couldn't swim, or bike, or sign.....

(I'm now working on doing all three at the same time. Cirque du Soleil should be calling any day now.)


"Growth itself contains the germ of happiness."        - Pearl S. Buck

Posting 11-19-05

Hello website! It's been awhile since I last "reflected" ......

My involvement with ASL and Deaf culture continues. I regularly see friends and go to parties, picnics, auctions, Starbucks, camps, breakfasts, happy hours, Bible studies, and recently a Halloween masked ball!

Studying ASL and getting involved with the Deaf community is one of the best things I've ever done.

I'm still comparatively slow expressively and my receptive skills vary widely depending on how much sleep I've had. I try to do something at least weekly... wish it could be daily.

Of great help to me has been a good friend who happens to be Deaf. It started out as a trade of services - computer help for ASL help, but it evolved into friendship.

When entering the visual world of the Deaf, I find it useful to remind myself:

  • To open up and allow total absorption of everything visual.
  • To sign with understated movement.
  • To trade my desire to "get it right" for humility and reckless abandon.
    (My ASL is never better then when I am really tired, or cold, or in some other way distracted from selfconsciousness.)

I wish I could learn ASL the way I learned English, absorbing it one word at a time, picking it up along the way. I wish we could do total immersion first, and later get into all that left-brain rule stuff afterwards. Why?

Well, the learning of vocabulary, grammar and other rules of language is a very left-brain frontal lobe, intentional activity. But using the language is much more right-brain, unconscious, and unintentional. Flexing from left brain into right brain mode is difficult, but for auditory people adapting to visual language, it is absolutely necessary.
"Why is it so difficult for me to understand what I see? I know what the signs are as they go by, but I just don't register any meaning.  And the harder I try the less I understand!" 

Understanding sign language for me is somewhat the art of "not doing". My goal is to allow what I see to flow over me, without "going after" the things I don't comprehend. Dwelling even briefly on a sign you don't understand can mean losing conversational context. In order to take in the maximum amount of visual information, just let it flow past. When you see something you don't understand, don't shift focus to think about them. Stay in the flow of the present . Whatever you missed will tend to come along again at some point, and eventually it will register.

Think of a river...

When you watch a particular area, observing the water's flow over rocks and around curved banks, the river takes on a particular shape and form. But if you turn your focus upon a specific section of the water, watching it approach, and pass by, you no longer see the shape of the river. For instance, if a leaf on the surface (a sign you don't understand) comes into view, you will want to shift your focus of attention to that leaf, following it downstream. But watch too many leaves go by, and you are no longer watching the river. And unlike a river, the shape and form of visual communication is constantly changing.

To put this as cryptically as possible:

Watch the river, and you'll see any leaves that float by...
But if you watch those leaves, the river disappears.

When I catch myself watching "leaves" and losing meaning, I do this to get back in the flow:

I glance and look away...just for a moment, until meaning or what I saw registers. Then I glance up again and look away again. Gradually the glance becomes a look, longer and longer until my brain catches up to the images coming at it.
When your eyes get tired, stop. Take a break. Focus on something far away. Close your eyes for awhile. Then if you still want to push on, lighten up. What I mean is, casually observe the signs rather than assiduously studying them. Just browse. Stop caring whether you understand. Ignore thoughts like "Wait! I'd better go back over that part again - I didn't understand it all!*  Who cares? Just observe it going by. Relax. If you start to fall asleep you are doing it right. Reject the tendency to self-judge with negative talk. ("I can't believe this -- I'll never get it...I must be stupid...might as well give up...")**

*Have you ever experienced a sort of anxiety that says "If I don't understand this right now, and immediately go back and drill until I get it. I'll lock in the problem." Do you ever feel like that? Well it won't happen. Soak in what you can, and let the rest flow by.

**The conscious voice of self-criticism must be turned down so that the unconscious can take in information unhindered. Psycho-cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz, and the later-published Inner Game of Tennis are great books, which illustrate the principles of how the mind works, and shows how we can stop being our own worst enemies.


The most important factor for me in learning ASL has been simply not giving up. It takes time to learn to think visually. As it is with the fermentation of wine, so it is with regard to the acquisition of new skills, habits, and reflexes: you can't hurry the the process, but once it has begun, it will tend to continue of it's own momentum.

I associate with Deaf and HH friends, plus continue self-study in vocabulary, etc., but I don't have to do it every day or even every week for that momentum to continue. This I didn't expect - my receptive skills continuing to develop no matter what I do. Sure, when I haven't had any "Deaf time" for a week or two due to a busy schedule, etc., I am
rusty.....but only at first. Soon it's back into visual mode, and I feel a fluency of perception I don't deserve. Everything coming at my eyes is now grist for the mill. What was once overwhelming now feeds my understanding, because I have gained sufficient context to parse the information. (As Bill has pointed out, ASL is a high-context language.)

As a result:
Signs I already know are reinforced as I see them signed repeatedly and in different ways.
Signs I don't know so well are better defined as I see them used in various contexts.
Signs I don't know at all I now recognize as ....signs I don't know at all! Before they just blended into gibberish. Now I know it is either a new sign, or somebody's name sign! :)

Courage! The benefits truly are cumulative. The wine only improves.


Sophia:  Hi, Mr. Mather!
Scott:  Call me Scott! Having no hair makes me feel old enough!
Sophia:  I just wanted to thank you for sharing your journey toward ASL fluency. I hope your road is much smoother now, perhaps with a highway or two.
Scott:  When it comes to fluency, "toward" is the operative word. I am learning, but it will always be a process. Fingerspelling being the most challenging. (I know they are faking those interior letters..:)
And yes, the road is smoother. I have enough context now to be able to understand what I don't yet understand, and ask for definitions. Also of great encouragement is the fact that none of my efforts have been wasted. Everything I have done has established a momentum of growth that continues even when I am not focused on ASL! Especially receptive skill. Yup, I found the other day as I sat down to "hear" a speaker sign a message, that I was following it all. And I hadn't had a Deaf fix in a couple weeks! So...
Sophia:  You've given me hope. I am currently a student teacher and mother of a mildly autistic son. Our family began attempting to learn sign language in an effort to help my son overcome the obstacle of also having mixed expressive/receptive disorder. It's a language processing disorder which has caused him to have a poverty of spoken language.
Scott:  This is really quite wonderful. The way I feel, ASL has rewired my brain. Meaning there are more connections up there. I'll bet that in the future you will discover that because of what you have done for your son, he has developed and will continue to develop other areas of his brain, to the extent that they will compensate for others which have not developed and caused his autistic tendencies. I have nothing to back this up except instinct, and stories I have heard of just this sort of thing happening. So bravo to you!! Your efforts will be repaid many times over.
Sophia:  I started off with the only resources I could find, which was basically the free baby signing dvds at the library. We learned those and my son seemed to really enjoy it, so I researched more and discovered [Dr.] Vicars' site as well as If you know of any children who are learning to sign, we absolutely recommend those videos. They are so fun we hardly realize we're learning.
Scott:  Thanks. I'll file that away.
Sophia:  Signing has truly helped my son's language improve tremendously. He is starting speech therapy this year, and we plan to continue learning sign language at home. In fact, I am hoping to begin ASL courses at the local community college next semester.
Scott:  Yes!
Sophia:  My future plan is to hopefully become credentialed to teach and introduce elementary students to ASL. I love that ASL for the most part feels so natural! And, without really trying, a person can open up his or her mind to the duality that is being bilingual. Being from Southern California, I'm hoping to help bridge the English language learners and English-only speakers via ASL so that they can discover each other and a respect of other cultures and languages.
Scott: I love this idea. ASL as a bridge to different ways of seeing, of communicating, of thinking, and of discovery of other cultures and human beings. Seriously, I think that everyone should be required to learn a minimum number of signs as part of their schooling - basic education. 25 signs maybe. So many good reasons and uses for this information. And how many of those would "catch fire" and continue to learn?
Sophia:  I haven't signed up for my first ASL class yet, but already I have a local principal interested in my teaching ideas on the topic.
Scott:  Not surprising given the above possibilities for good.
Sophia:  Thank you for giving me hope that ASL fluency can be achieved. I have been a bit nervous about starting up, but your story has inspired me to stop wasting time thinking about it! The more I sit contemplating, the more time I could have been spending communicating with new friends! I know that your specific webpage will be one I continue to visit during my and my family's journey into the world of Deaf language and culture. Thank you for sharing!!
Scott:  You are more than welcome. Isn't hope the greatest gift we can give each other as human beings? Your outlook changes everything.
Go Sophie!!  Thanks for your encouraging email...


The brain can change at any age.

In learning sign, I now realize that it has been precisely during the times of my greatest frustration that my mental capacities were expanded the most. It sure didn't feel that way. It felt like I was hitting my head against a brick wall. But because I kept up that mental head-butting my body responded. (I imagine some hardhat-wearing micro man in my head yelling "Hey, we need more brain function up here. Now! ")

You know how when someone physically pushes themselves in a workout, they experience real discomfort and have to resist the desire to quit. But if they maintain the effort, the body once it has had a chance to rest and recover, responds to the challenge by building itself up stronger and better than before. It does this only when new demands are made of it.  So it is with the mind.

"Use it or lose it" implies that after a certain point in life, one has nothing to gain - just something to lose. The truth however seems to be that we all have something to gain:

"Contrary to popular myth, you do not lose mass quantities of brains cells as you get older. "There isn't much difference between a 25-year old brain and a 75-year old brain," says Dr. Monte S. Buchsbaum, who has scanned a lot of brains as director of the Neuroscience PET Laboratory at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Cognitive decline is not inevitable. When 6,000 older people were given mental tests throughout a ten-year period, almost 70% continued to maintain their brain power as they aged.

Certain areas of the brain, however, are more prone to damage and deterioration over time. One is the hippocampus , which transfers new memories to long-term storage elsewhere in the brain. Another vulnerable area is the basal ganglia, which coordinates commands to move muscles. Research indicates that mental exercise can improve these areas and positively affect memory and physical coordination."


 "Research on the physical results of thinking has shown that just using the brain actually increases the number of dendritic branches that interconnect brain cells. The more we think, the better our brains function -- regardless of age. The renowned brain researcher Dr. Marian Diamond says, "The nervous system possesses not just a 'morning' of plasticity, but an 'afternoon' and an 'evening' as well."

Dr. Diamond found that whether we are young or old, we can continue to learn. The brain can change at any age. A dendrite grows much like a tree -- from trunk to limbs to branches to twigs -- in an array of ever finer complexity. In fact, older brains may have an advantage. She discovered that more highly developed neurons respond even better to intellectual enrichment than less developed ones do. The greatest increase in dendritic length occurred in the outermost dendritic branches, as a reaction to new information."


(...above excerpts taken from The Franklin Institute web site on brain development:   There is more on this site which is worth reading.)

 So as I have said before, the most important thing any student of ASL can do is actually what they should not do - give up. When you reach points of impasse decide you will persevere.  When you are frustrated, let that make you the more determined to prevail. When you are tired, and begin to suspect that you just don't get it and never will, don't believe it. It sounds perverse, but when you hit the wall, be encouraged. Because your struggle is increasing your capacity to learn, and you will most certainly benefit.

Oh, and hang with your Deaf friends and acquaintances as often as you can.  You'll learn there what no classroom or book can ever teach you.



I got hold of a new resource the other day, the new Gallaudet ASL dictionary. In hardback, it's a $50 book, but well worth it. It is authoritative, comprehensive yet simple, and best of all different. The entire approach is pictorial. Each illustration is shown with one English word plus perhaps a few synonyms. There is a cross reference with many more words in the back. This isn't the only dictionary that I'd recommend. No one book that is completely adequate to the task. I've got three I use, plus the online dictionary at and Dr. Bill's dictionary on the ASL University at All these sources help me to understand how and why there can be different signs for the same "word" (English gloss). The greater the variety of sources, the better.

Same with ASL in general: the greater the variety of sources and experience, the better. Schoolwork is just a small part of an education. I love Mark Twain's quote: "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education" because it has attitude. The greater the variety of Deaf information and experience that is obtained - socializing in groups, chatting one on one, classroom instruction, vocabulary study, Deaf culture study, video tapes study, finger spelling, classifiers, ABC stories - and the greater the frequency with which it is sought out, the more quickly gestalt will be achieved. The Germans coined the term "gestalt" to describe a configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that it cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts. Skill in signing is more than the sum of its parts. The aggregation of information and experience over time will generate mental quantum leaps to new states of understanding, new levels of gestalt. And that's exciting stuff.



Well hello blog. It has been 5 years since my last confession post. What happened to me? Nothing dramatic. I'm fine. Healthy, happy, busy, etc.

So why the absence? I got tired I think. My wife and I were pretty involved with the Northwest Christian Camp for the Deaf for 5 years, starting in 2008. When we took some time off and allowed others to take over the positions we had occupied, that's when my involvement with all things Deaf started to wane. I'd go to events, but not as often, and each time my signing skills (especially the receptive ones), were a bit more rusty. Finally, I remember attending one Deaf event, and after sitting at a table for an hour without much comprehension and therefore little inclusion (not that I blame them), I realized it was time to go. That was my last Deaf event in… well… it has to be about 4 years now.

As much as I enjoyed everything about the language, the people, the culture, the thrill of learning new things -- I confess I have not missed it as much as I thought I would. Perhaps this is because I almost never run into Deaf acquaintances. Upon reflection it makes sense. People who stay involved are often those with Deaf relatives, or close friends who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing. There was one person who whom I was close, and who taught me a great deal. My tutor. She was a delight -- quick, creative, and eccentric. But she moved to Colorado. We've not communicated much since. That's ok. Things change. But that was another mooring gone….and with so many other distractions in life, I sort of drifted away.

BUT!  That's not why I write. Today I happened to witness someone interpreting, and as I watched, I was encouraged at how much understanding remains. The visual knowledge that was so hard won has not disappeared. It is still there, and when (not if) I plunge in again, I am confident that facility will return. I say this to encourage any who might question whether the things they are working so hard to learn will be retained long term. Yes, they will. It is cumulative. And when the learning is most difficult - when you have to fight the hardest to achieve, that knowledge will be especially resilient. Scientists now realize that the brain responds to stimulation at any age. New brain cells grow. Old connections are rewired for new purposes, which would seem to lend a new slant on the Cartesian statement "I think, therefore I am." How about, "I strive, therefore I flourish!"

- Scott

Who is this guy?!?

"Scott Mather is a resident of the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his wife and two Siamese cats. He was 50 when he started learning ASL, and as everyone knows, that's too late to learn a new language. Heedless of this fact, Mather pursued ASL study at a local college. At Deaf events, he is known to converse with anyone who will look at him, where his favorite signs are HUH?... AGAIN... SLOWER... and DON'T UNDERSTAND.
His Deaf acquaintances have favorite signs when he's around, such as HUH?... AGAIN... I THOUGHT YOUR FRIEND HE... and HIS HAIR, HAPPEN "WHAT?"

Only because Scott pestered Bill Vicars constantly with emailed comments and questions, Bill finally gave him his own page just to get some relief. Scott had a name all picked out - "Rejections of an ASL Student", but Bill's editorial judgment prevailed."

-- Scott


[Editor's note]
Dr. Bill writes: 
Scott's self-deprecating humor aside, I was thrilled when he generously agreed to let me share his ASL journey with you. Scott's skill as a wordsmith is a valued addition to this site. He can be reached via email at:


Also see: "Am I too old to learn sign language?"

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