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What does it mean to be fluent in ASL?


Being fluent in American Sign Language means having the ability to communicate in ASL easily and effectively.  Fluent signers have a high enough level of proficiency that they are able to understand and express the language smoothly with little to no hesitation.

Characteristics of ASL fluency:

Effective Communication: The ability to communicate your thoughts clearly and effectively without significant struggle. This includes conversing naturally and fluidly, conveying complex ideas, and participating in various forms of dialogue.

Comprehension:  This includes the ability to comprehend different regional variants, speeds, and informal or formal styles of signing as well as fingerspelling and depictive signing.

Expressive Skills:  The use of correct handshapes, movements, facial expressions, and body language to convey meaning accurately and effectively. This includes using an appropriate signing box, hand dominancy, eye-gaze, role shift, intensity, absent & present referents, depiction, location, flow, and other aspects of articulation.

Fingerspelling:  Skill in receptive and expressive fingerspelling is an important aspect of ASL fluency.  This includes knowing when and when not to fingerspell which requires a wide general awareness of existing ASL vocabulary.


Cultural and Idiomatic Knowledge: Understanding cultural references, idioms, and expressions unique to the Deaf community is crucial for full fluency.


Pragmatic skills: Seamless and effective communication in ASL often relies context. Skilled signers know that the interpretation of meaning of many signs or phrases depends on the setting.  They adapt their language to their audience, the setting, and previously established information. 


Question: Does ASL fluency mean signing fast?

Answer:  Speed is relative.  A rate of signing that seems moderate or even slow to a skilled Deaf signer may seem fast to someone who is learning ASL as a second language.

Some students mistakenly try to sign as fast as they can without pauses -- thinking that they are being fluent.

Being a fluent signer doesn't mean "no pauses."  Fluent signers can and often do sign at a high rate of speed but we also take the time to add pauses when it is appropriate.

Being fluent involves being able to sign at a normal speed for an average native language user -- which often seems fast to Hearing ASL as a second language learners but seems medium or normal to (native) Deaf signers.

My wife, Bee Vicars, has many times indicated how nice it is to sign with skilled signers who can sign quickly.  To be clear: At no point has Bee ever suggested that a student should sign without pauses.

Also, for those reading this information and thinking -- "Oh my teacher told me to slow down and that I was trying to sign too fast." 

Such teachers are generally trying to help you understand that signing fast without pauses is not what being fluent is about.

If you are a slow signer you generally will NOT be considered fluent -- but signing fast without pauses is not how fluent signers sign. 

Instead, skilled signers sign at a rate of signing that fits the situation and use appropriate punctuation in their signing.

Do you think that Bee doesn't pause during her signing? Of course she does. However she and other fluent signers don't have to pause every other sign to think of how to do the next sign.

If Hearing people want to be considered fluent by Deaf people -- Hearing people will need to be able to sign at a rate that is generally similar to the rate of signing that Deaf people sign -- with appropriate pausing in-between the other signing that is being done at the rate and flow that Deaf people sign.

If you want to get along on the highway -- you go the rate of travel of other people on the highway or you end up slowing down traffic. That doesn't mean you floor the gas (or the electricity) turn on your cruise control and never tap the breaks, never change lanes, and never slow down -- it means you don't take a bicycle onto the freeway and wonder why all those car drivers are honking.

Yes, sometimes a teacher will tell certain ambitious "students to slow down" but what they actually mean is "use appropriate ASL punctuation."  If you are ever going to become an interpreter for the Deaf or a teacher of the Deaf or even just chat with Deaf people without being annoyingly slow you will need to put in the effort to learn how to sign at a rate of flow similar to average Deaf signing."

That might  take years but aspiring interpreters are usually going to need to sign at a rate that is similar to the rate that Deaf sign in order to pass certification tests and do their future job in a way that doesn't harm Deaf.

Use appropriate pausing (and other fluency characteristics).  Your teacher telling you to slow down isn't giving you a free pass to not put in effort. Rather they are saying make the effort to learn the rest of the aspects of fluency in addition to signing at a flow that will make you welcome in Deaf conversations.

To be considered fluent, you need to use appropriate pausing, staging, punctuation, facial expressions, identify your referents, use role shift to indicate who is talking, and the many other skills that skilled Deaf signers use to communicate effectively.







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