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   ASLU:  "What is the right way to sign ______?"


Lyn J. Wiley writes:

Many years ago I attended a luncheon for Deaf and hearing ASL instructors. One woman commented (signed) that there were walnuts in her salad and she didn't care for them. That little comment evolved into a series of fairly-heated arguments about the sign for 'nut.'

One man said the sign was done with an A hand shape with the thumb extended. Others said it used an A hand shape but the thumb was not extended. Some said the sign started with the tip of the thumb near the chin. Others said "No! It must start with the tip of the thumb near the mouth!!" Others said, 'You're both wrong - it has to start just above the upper lip!"

I was startled by the fierce determination of a few to prove they were "right" or to prove others "wrong."  They also argued as to whether the sign used an elbow action only, a wrist action only or a bit of both. Then came an argument as to whether the arm moved a bit forward with the sign or whether the hand simply 'tilted' forward with a wrist action. Then two of them started arguing as to whether an acorn was a nut, or not.

At the time I remember thinking, "This is nuts!"

Eventually, someone asked my opinion. I said, "If in doubt, I'd spell it out. It's a three-letter word. And one women said, "Noooo! You must know exactly how to sign 'nut' or you shouldn't be teaching ASL!"

As a new ASL instructor, observing those arguments was an excellent experience for me, because during that luncheon I resolved to never hold, and never teach, such concrete ideas about the 'exact' way a sign 'must' be done.

About eight months ago I had a group of ASL students at my home for lunch; I saw one student (Kim) say to another student (Shayla), "You signed nut wrong. The sign has to start near the nose, not near the mouth."  And I thought, "Uh oh, this feels like a highly-unlikely form of deja vu."

No discussion ensued, however, because Shayla just smiled and said, "Okay."  Her personality and ways of thinking are very relaxed, open, flexible. Kim's personality and ways of thinking are more rigid - she has firmly fixed rules for, and opinions about, many aspects of life, which, of course, is perfectly okay. Kim is the opposite; her ways of being and thinking are perfectly okay as well. I view it as an "I'm okay, you're okay" kind of thing.

For sure, our individual personalities, our ways of thinking, and ways of being (along with countless other factors) have a profound effect on the way we learn sign.

The best source for learning ASL is to learn it via a direct association with your local, Deaf Community -- even if individual community members occasionally disagree as to what versions of signs are "right."

- Lyn J. Wiley

Editor's note:  Lyn J. Wiley is an ASL Instructor and Wordsmith.
She has taught ASL for decades and is a published author of English Poetry thus truly meeting the definition of "bilingual."
- Dr. Bill

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