I wasn’t quite 10 years old when Brian and his family moved into the neighborhood. A new kid on the block was always something exciting, but Brian was only 5. And a boy. So. Ew. Pass.
Except Brian was different. He didn’t speak; for one thing, though, he did make noise. He wore these clunky, tan hearing aids that were larger than his ears and frequently emitted a shrill, piercing cry. But by far the coolest thing: Brian and his parents used sign language together.
“Bob and I haven’t been on a date since Brian was born. We can’t leave him with someone who doesn’t know how to communicate with him.” Brian’s mother didn’t sound bitter. Just matter of fact. I overheard her one night from my perch on the stairs, where I liked to spy on my parent’s dinner parties. They didn’t often keep my interest, but the inclusion of Brian’s parents piqued my curiosity.
Learning Sign Language
The next day, I asked to go to the library. I checked out every book they had on sign language. American Sign Language, Signed Exact English, Pidgin Signed English (sometimes called “Creole”): these are the three major forms of sign language used in the United States.
Signed Exact English (SEE sign) is a visual representation of English. It’s a sign system, not a language. American Sign Language, however, is a complete language. ASL has its own syntax, grammar, and structure that differs from spoken English. It was officially recognized as a true language by the Supreme Court in 1989 (I didn’t even know they could do that).
A pidgin is a language that naturally develops when people who do not know each other’s language wish to communicate. Pidgin Signed English combines elements of ASL and English. This form of sign is often used when native ASL users are trying to communicate with non-ASL users.
My First 100 Words
I pored over the books, spent hours manipulating my hands and fingers into unfamiliar shapes until they could get into position without too much help. When I had a couple hundred words in my memory bank, I presented myself as a potential babysitter for Brian.
That was the beginning of a beautiful relationship — two, really. The first, with Brian’s family, which regrettably ended when my mother and I moved. And the second, my love affair with American sign language, the culture of Deafness, and the beauty of silent speech: this became a lifelong passion.
More articles on serving kids with unique challenges:
My Career in Sign Language
I’ve been a professional sign language interpreter for 26 years, before “baby sign language” was ubiquitous or laypeople knew the benefits of signing. Signing is a kinetic act stimulating both the right brain, responsible for visual-spatial reasoning and long-term memory and the left brain, responsible for processing language. Spoken language tends to be processed by the left cerebral hemisphere only.
Jennifer Christie signs “Walking Miracles” by Matthew West in American Sign Language
Most people are familiar with bilingualism, but few know about being bimodal. “Bimodalism” means using the visual-spatial medium. This practice expands your perception skills. It improves things like spatial awareness, mental rotation skills, and visual sensitivity. In short, signing is a workout for your brain.
It’s the perfect career for anyone who likes challenge and change. During my time as an interpreter, I’ve interpreted for rock stars and presidents. I’ve seen people pass away, and I’ve watched babies startle their way into the world. Also, I’ve been in courtrooms and on cruise ships, kindergarten classrooms, and maximum security prisons. I love what I do.
Misconceptions About Deafness
Deafness is not considered a disability among those who identify as culturally Deaf (noted by a capital D.) Their view is that their hearing loss isn’t a loss but simply a difference. “Hearing impaired” is offensive, “impaired” implying damage or defect (“Deaf” is fine).
It’s a pathological and not sociological view of their community that disregards history, schools, associations, and struggles. A shared experience and knowledge bind the community together. This bond is tight and proud.
Deaf pride may be foreign to you, but the Deaf are very protective of their legacy. A well-meaning legacy of (mostly hearing) people is chipping away or trying to “fix” something that isn’t broken. This approach is evidenced by:
- Cochlear implants (quite controversial)
- Mandatory speech therapy for deaf children in public schools
- An emphasis on lip-reading over their native ASL
"...in paradise, everyone will know how to SIGN!"
I’ve always been active in my church’s deaf ministry. Our friendly (very patient) Deaf congregants weekly fielded questions from fascinated onlookers at my last home church. One morning, a man approached us and told our group that in heaven, we’d all worship together, as God intended.
Immediately, an older Deaf woman lifted her hands, “Yes! When we praise in paradise, everyone will know how to SIGN!”
Her friends clapped.
“Maybe?” She beamed at me.
“Maybe,” I agreed.
What a sight that would be.
If Brian or his parents happen upon this article and remember Mahwah, NJ and their eager, pigtailed babysitter, knees always skinned from falling off her skateboard…
I never said and should have said—