SignWriting List Forum
Date: Sun May 9, 1999 4:39
"Angus B. Grieve-Smith"
Subject: Re: A Question I Can't Answer...
Well, Valerie, I don't know if I answered the specific question
very well, but it sure brought up a bunch of other ideas! I hope this
will help your correspondent to some degree.
I'm not sure exactly what the question is. Does knowing a few
signs help in recognizing English words by sight? Well, they're both
visible language, but they have completely different structures, and the
only connection between, say, the sign for "water" and the written word
"water" is the W. But the English word "cat" doesn't have an F in it, and
the sign for "think" doesn't have a T handshape. I'm sure that learning
ASL, like any language, would generally help cognitive development. But
specifically for writing, I can't imagine any way that it would be
helpful. I know that it doesn't help the Deaf kids I've been working
The background for your question brings up an interesting idea,
though. It makes me think of the notion of two-way bilingualism that
exists in some school systems. I saw a video of a hearing sixth-grade
classroom in San Jose, CA where half the class was native English-speaking
and the other half native Spanish-speaking. The teacher was bilingual and
conducted the class in English for half of the day and Spanish for the
To me, this sends out a heartening message of tolerance. It was
within living memory that Keres-speaking students in New Mexico were
physically tortured (and I'm not exaggerating) for speaking their native
language. We have stopped the torture, and now we can move even further in
the direction of validating non-dominant languages through two-way
It is similar with signed languages. The more people in this
country that know ASL and the more fluent they are, the more the hearing
population will accept its share of the burden of communication, and the
less Deaf people will have to face job discrimination, spend years in
speech training, or fumble to get English word order down on paper.
That said, I'm a bit concerned about the way this is being
implemented. I was approached by a hearing teacher this week who told me
that she is also introducing a few signs to her hearing kindergartners.
She admitted that she is not fluent in ASL, and just looks up signs in a
dictionary. One of the ways she teaches the signs is as part of a dance
set to a song with similar words in English.
I think it's important for kids to get their signs in real ASL,
with real ASL syntax, from real Deaf people. My suggestion for the
teacher was to contact the local Deaf service organization or the Registry
of Interpreters for the Deaf, and arrange to have a Deaf person from the
community come and teach the kids a few conversational phrases.
Art is definitely a way that kids like to learn. It would help
for the art that's used to be authentic. Signed versions of children's
songs are not authentic. Deaf poetry, Deaf jokes, and ABC stories are
authentic expressions of Deaf culture, and would give the kids a more
realistic picture of ASL.
What I'm trying to say is that I can't think of any direct way
that learning a few signs would help your students recognize English words
by sight. On the other hand, teaching them a basic conversational sign
vocabulary would send a powerful message of tolerance and inclusion. If
you want to do this right, you'll find a Deaf person from your community
who can come in and do a guest lecture so that the kids learn a bit of the
true grammar of ASL, not just a few signs.
-Angus B. Grieve-Smith
The University of New Mexico