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American Sign Language: "Advice to New Students of ASL"

By:  Lyn J. Wiley, ASL Instructor and Tutor





Some new ASL students express self-consciousness about the condition of their hands:  arthritic joints; chubby hands and fingers, hands with a missing finger, otherwise damaged hands; elderly hands that 'are not as quick or agile as they used to be,'  long-skinny fingers; psoriasis on the hands; broken or stained fingernails; leathery-well-worn-hard-working-hands, etc. 

Some students say the condition of their hands causes them embarrassment, or they fear people will be distracted by the condition, or won't understand them when they fingerspell or sign.

All pairs of hands are unlike any other pair of hands on earth, just as all voices are unlike any of the other 7.4 billion voices on earth.  Deaf people are accustomed to reading and understanding all kinds of hands, just as hearing people are accustomed to hearing and understanding all kinds of voices.

So, no worries about whether or not you will be understood. Regardless your condition it's likely you will be understood. And, if you're not, you can make adjustments and 'find ways' to make yourself understood, just as countless others have done before you.

About the self-consciousness: I think it would be highly unusual for someone to make a harsh judgement about the condition of our hands.  And if they did, it would broadcast volumes about their character and say nothing about 'our hands.'

Speaking for myself I would say this, "When you are signing to me, I'm focused on your thoughts, feelings, personality and heart. My focus is not on your hands.  And, if I do happen to notice something about your hands, what I notice is inconsequential. I keep my focus on what I value - - and that is to understand, and learn from, what you are saying."


During their first few ASL classes, new students sometimes express personal concerns.  The following  represent some of the more common ones. After each concern, I offer some input. 

Note: My input does not speak for other Deaf people or for other ASL instructors. It speaks only for myself and reflects only my experience and ways of thinking and not the experience or ways of thinking of anyone else.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

"I don't have the best memory in the world. How am I going to remember all the signs!?"

My input:  Most adults, it seems to me, have a marginal memory or one fogged and tangled up with multiple layers of information, concerns, things to do, relationships to have, protect or repair, places to go, work issues, schedules, etc. And, many of us operate with both of those, meaning we operate with a poor-to-fair-fogged-up-overloaded-memory.  And, although that's frustrating at times, it's normal and it's not fatal.

Is it possible that a 'heart' for ASL and a strong resolve to learn it, and a wish to make good use of our mind and our time, and wanting to connect with other people are more important factors for learning ASL . . than a remarkable memory? 

Now, if we could take those things and bundle them with a remarkable memory, that would make life - and learning ASL much easier. But that's not a necessity.  Countless people with a marginal and/or fogged up, clogged up memory have learned sign language successfully, through the years. 

Anyway, I suggest we do the best we can and don't beat ourselves up when we forget a sign.  Or when we forget fifty signs. We WILL forget signs - a lot of them - and we will make mistakes - a lot of them - because that's the nature of learning.   The good news is that a mistake is no longer a mistake if we learn from it - it's a stepping stone that allows us to move one more step forward.

And by the way, we don't have to learn 'all' the signs.  We can speak and understand English without knowing 'all the words' in the Webster's Dictionary, and without knowing how every word is spelled and pronounced and whether it is a verb, adverb, adjective etc   Likewise with ASL. We can start with a very limited ASL vocabulary (just as we did with our English vocabulary or some other spoken vocabulary when we were a baby) and keep adding more and more signs as we go.  In other words, we don't have to know the vast majority of words in a spoken or signed language in order to use the language effectively.  The more words and signs we know the better . . but we can communicate effectively with a limited number of signs and fingerspelling skills.

I think it's enormously helpful to RELAX and have FUN while learning ASL, and I also think that's one key to success in learning it.  Because, I believe that most of us learn and retain information most readily when we're relaxed and having fun.

"Your best teacher is your last mistake." - Ralph Nader

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

"I'm dyslexic. Is that going to mess me up when I sign?"

My Input:  No more than it messes up Deaf dyslexic people when they sign. And I am one of them. I am late-deafened; I lost my hearing in my early 30s. I speak English and sometimes say things like "Hill and Billary" instead of "Bill and Hillary."  And, when I sign or fingerspell, I make an occasional ASL dyslexic faux pas.  A recent one: I used a sign. My friend copied my sign and then signed:  'Mean, what?"  To answer his question I fingerspelled:  "c-h-o-k-t-i-a-r-k."  He signed: "What the hell? c-h-o-k-t-i-a-r-k!?  What's-that!?" When he spelled the word back, I realized I had misspelled 'artichoke' due to my dyslexia.  So, I re-spelled it correctly and he 'got it.'  We laughed.  I find that when I take my dyslexic faux pas in stride, other people take them in stride as well. Many people, who are dyslexic, use sign language. So, my best guess is that yours won't be a problem.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

"Geez!   I'm the youngest person in this class!"

"Good grief!  I'm the oldest person in this class!"

Young people and older people bring to class, great assets and advantages.  A young mind can absorb, retrain and retrieve information more efficiently than an older mind.  And, young minds are less cluttered with life's expectations, schedules, requirements, worries, memories, general information, disappointments, etc.  That's not to say that they haven't stored some of that data, it's just that their mental inventory is minimal, compared to the mental inventory of an adult.  And, therefore, young minds are more 'clear-headed.'

Older minds, on the other hand, are filled with a rich, vast reservoir of information, insight, wisdom, memories of life experiences and lessons learned from the same.  And, older students can tap that wealth of information in order to expedite the learning of ASL. 

So, whether you are the youngest student in class, or the oldest or somewhere in between - no worries because regardless your age, you are 'in a good place' and capable of learning whether it's ASL or something else.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

"My English is broken so to me be a difficult?"

My Input:  Limited skills with English will cause occasional difficulty.  But with a determination to learn ASL you will be able to do it.  Many former students, who had limited English skills, have proven that to be true. 

Remember, ASL is not English any more than the languages of Vietnam, Swahili or French . . . are English.  Depending on your instructor, and his or her philosophy about 'how to teach' ASL, you may hear some verbal exchanges in English, during your ASL classes as the instructor explains some things and/or as the students ask questions and chat with each other informally.  Even if you have an instructor who uses ASL only (no voice, no English) some of your classmates may speak to each other, occasionally, in English.  So, If you want to improve your English at the same time you are learning ASL, those occasional English exchanges will serve you well. Again, if you are willing to jump over a few hurdles that your English-speaking classmates won't have to jump - you will do fine.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

"I'm left-handed, is that going to be a problem?"

My Input:  Not at all.  You will simply make mirror images of the signs that right-handed people make - which means you'll be making them the same way that Deaf left-handed people make them. :)

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

"I have six kids at home - like, I mean, how am I going to find time to practice!?"

My input:  Well . . . if, after every class, you taught your children some of what you learned, you would be giving yourself the gift of a good review and you would simultaneously be giving your children a valuable gift that might inspire them to learn more sign language in the future.  And if you have a spouse, partner, significant other, grandparent or any other adult living with you, you could ask them if they would like to learn some of what you learned.  Again, you would  be giving yourself a review and sharing some ASL with others.  You could also ask your circle of friends, work associates, neighbors and others if they would like you to teach them some of what you have learned.

"In learning you will teach and in teaching you will learn." - Phil Collins

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

"I'm the only guy in this class, so I'm feeling sorta awkward."

My input.  If you are the only guy in this class you are a 'gift' and in a position that is much-appreciated by many.  Why?  Because, in my experience, most sign language classes have many female students and only a few, or two, or one or no male students.  The world needs both men and women who sign. So thank you for helping to fill that gender gap!  We're happy to have you here!

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

"I'm not always the brightest bulb in the sockets . . .so . . . I don't know if I'll be able to learn ASL, or not."

My input.  You don't have to be 'one of the brightest bulb in the sockets' in order to learn ASL.  I'm living proof of that.  I don't think I've ever regarded myself as the 'brightest bulb in the sockets,' regardless what group I've been with or what situation I've been in.  And yet I teach ASL.  So if I can teach it, you can learn it just as I did many years ago . . . . . starting with A . . . . B . . . . C . . . and . . . "My name is . . .

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

"I'm worried that I'll be the slowest student in class. Slow to learn. Slow when I'm fingerspelling. Slow when I'm signing.  And if I am, I'll be a drag on everyone including you, Lyn."

My input:

About speed of learning:  To me, it doesn't matter how rapidly or slowly we learn a new skill. What matters is what we do with the skill once we have it.  In other words, the speed doesn't matter as long as we eventually 'get there' and do something worthwhile with what we learned.

"Every flower blooms at a different pace." - Suzy Kassem

The learning of ASL is not a 'competition' or a 'race' to see who learns the fastest.  It's simply an opportunity for every student to progress at whatever pace works best for them.  In decades of teaching ASL I have never once had a student who I felt was 'a drag on the class' or a 'drag on me.' And I promise you - you won't qualify to be one either.  Because I respect whatever learning pace works best for a given student and I don't see one pace as being 'better' or 'worse,' than another. 

About speed of fingerspelling: There is 'no need to hurry' while fingerspelling just as there is 'no need to hurry' when we are writing something on paper. No one gets a gold medal for 'fast fingerspelling' because no one cares how fast we fingerspell. Well . . . . . if we fingerspell so fast that they can't understand our words, then they would care. But that kind of speed is self-defeating and has no value.

I know this to be true:  If you 'hurry yourself up' while fingerspelling you will tense up, others will sense and absorb some of your tension - and the shared tension may rob you both, of the fun and relaxation of communicating.

A hurried-pace will also cause you to make mistakes - which you will have to 'take time' to correct.  Which reminds me of the quote, 'The hurrier I go the behinder I get.'  With fingerspelling it's best to go at a pace that allows you to relax with self-confidence, and allows you to 'fingerspell it right the first time.'  So I suggest we fingerspell at a pace that is comfortable for us - and never mind the pace that others choose for themselves.

One more note about fingerspelling.  This is my personal rule about my own fingerspelling:  Don't fingerspell at a speed that satisfies my own needs. Fingerspell at a speed that meets the needs of the person reading me - based on their level of skill with ASL. This rule dictates that I continually adjust my speed, to be considerate of the person I am signing with. 

And, if their skill with ASL far exceeds my own, which is often the case, I simply fingerspell at a relaxed, self-confident pace that allows me to 'fingerspell it right the first time.' And I don't worry about how 'fast' they can fingerspell.  Because their fingerspelling speed has nothing to do with the pace I've chosen for myself.

About speed of signing: To 'sign fast' is no more commendable than to 'talk fast.' Clarity of our thoughts is far more important than the speed with which we deliver our thoughts.  Machine-gun-style talking is possible, for some people.  But does it have value for them, or other people?  Some people 'talk fast' as a natural way of talking, likewise with signing. And some 'talk slowly' as a natural way of talking, likewise with signing. And most of us are somewhere in between those extremes.  I'll repeat something similar to what I said about fingerspelling- choose a pace for signing that is comfortable for you, one compatible with your skill level. And, to the extent you can, 'sign it right the first time' to avoid having to correct your mistakes and repeat yourself.  And when you make a mistake, simply 'erase it' and restate yourself and then keep going.

"It is a mistake to think that moving fast is the same as going somewhere.' - Steve Goddier

Also, keep  in mind that if you 'hurry yourself up' while signing you will tense up, others will sense and absorb some of your tension - and the shared tension may rob you both, of the fun and relaxation of communicating. If we are very tense, others may start paying more attention to the fact that we're self-conscious and uptight, than to what we are signing.

My personal rule for signing:  Don't sign at a pace that satisfies my own needs. Sign at a pace that meets the needs of the person reading me - based on their level of skill with ASL.  This rule dictates that I continaually adjust my speed, to be considerate of the person I am signing with. 

If the other person's  ASL skills far exceed my own, which is often the case, I simply sign at a self-confident pace that allows me to 'sign it right the first time.' And I don't worry about how 'fast' the other person can sign.  Because their signing-speed has nothing to do with the pace I've chosen for myself.

"Real learning comes when the competitive spirit has ceased." - Jedda Krishnamurti

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

"I don't have anyone to practice with outside of class. That's gonna make it slower and harder for me to work my way up over the learning curve."

My Input.  Here are some suggestions:

Ask people in your ASL class if any of them would like to meet with you, for some periodic practice outside of class.  Or, ask if any of them would like to meet for an hour before (or after) each class for some additional practice.

Ask family members, friends, work associates or others if they would like to have you teach them some ASL. That will give you practice outside of class and at the same time, you'll be sharing ASL with others, as well.

"There is no better way to learn, than to teach."  -Benjamin Whichcote

This suggestion is important for ALL ASL students, whether they have someone to practice with outside of class, or not.  DO ALL YOU CAN to ASSOCIATE WITH DEAF PEOPLE in your community.  The best way to learn ASL is to associate with those who use it as their primary language.

Ideas . . .

Do some research to find out if there are any Deaf Clubs or Deaf Meet-Ups within driving distance of your place - and if so, attend them.

Here are some creative ways some of my former students came up with, to 'get practice outside of class.'

An owner of a landscaping company (a new ASL student) hired a Deaf man and a Deaf woman to work alongside him doing landscaping work. Eight years later the owner retired and the Deaf man took ownership of the company.

A 19 year old student contacted a family where both parents and both of their small children used ASL as a primary language; she gave them references and offered to babysit for them at no cost in exchange for the opportunity to learn sign language from their 3 and 8 year old daughters.  They eventually hired her as a full-time nanny.

A student met a Deaf swim instructor who ultimately offered to teach the student and his six-year old son how to swim; their families remain close to this day, years later.

A student decided to produce and sell silk-screened t-shirts with ASL slogans and hired a deaf high school student to help her come up with slogans and help her produce the shirts.  And by the way, that student was 74 years old, at the time.

A young student suggested that her place of worship start a summer camp for hard of hearing and Deaf children and their parents and siblings and grandparents (whether the family members were hearing, hard of hearing or deaf).  The first year they had two campers, two parents, one grandparent and one sibling. Regardless that they held the five-day camp.  Afterwards, the Deaf father of one of the campers volunteered to plan the camp activities for the second year. Instead, the place of worship hired him to do just that. The last I heard they had 23 campers and some family members, two Deaf adult supervisors, one CODA supervisor (child of a Deaf adult) and two ASL students serving as volunteers.

There are many other examples but I'm guessing you'll agree that this article is getting too lengthy, so I'll end it here :)

ASLebrate! - Lyn J. Wiley




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