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Dancing with a skilled partner:

Why is it often easier for ASL students to sign with Deaf people than other ASL students?

An ASL student who lives with Deaf roommates and is studying ASL via Lifeprint(dot)com writes:
“The great irony of learning ASL from an online Deaf instructor (you) and my Deaf friends and roommates is that it’s really hard for me to converse with hearing language learners. I struggle to understand the interpreter students—how’s that for irony.
They often struggle to understand me too.”
[Name removed to protect the privacy of the student]

Response from Dr. Bill:

If you see sign language or interpreting students do signs that are different from what I've taught you or that your Deaf friends use feel free to mention the differences to me for discussion and clarification purposes. I'm always fascinated with the 2nd language acquisition process and finding out what works and what doesn't.

Skilled Deaf signers are capable of adjusting our signing to adapt to different signing styles and levels of ability. Most skilled Deaf signers have also developed the ability to understand a wide range of signing (including yours). Hearing 2nd language learners typically have a very limited range of expressive and receptive communication.

An interesting analogy or comparison to this situation has to do with dancing. While (I like to think) I'm a good signer -- I'm not a skilled ball-room type pair-dancer.

One day though many years ago when I was young and single I went to a social event where there was dancing. As normally happens, I (like most Deaf) gravitated to someone (anyone) who could communicate with me via signing and in attendance was one of my former ASL students -- a woman who was a few years older than me. She absolutely loved dancing, used to be married, got divorced, lacked a dance partner, and basically asked me to dance just to have a body out there on the floor with her.

Here's the interesting part -- she was so talented that for the next five minutes I felt like Fred Astaire. Her skill literally made me flow around that dance floor. Ha! I'd never experienced anything like it before or since. Her skill compensated for my lack of skill and she was able to make use of what little ability I had in order to create a flow.

I think it is like that for some second language learners who learn via engagement with (truly) skilled signers. The interaction feels effortless and flows.

Later, when I tried to dance with a non-super-skilled dancer I ended up back to "struggling" again. It was disconcerting (and sort of amusing).

I think another interesting point is that if I had tried to "lead" Becky (the name of my dance partner) it would not have worked . I had to be humble enough to let her lead and thus I had a great time.

Similarly, I think you are approaching your learning process in a flexible, humble way that allows you to learn from and engage with more skilled signers.

As your own signing skill-set expands you will become increasingly capable of compensating for the weakness in the signing ability of non-fluent signers.

- Dr. Bill :) 




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