Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Thursday, December 27, 2007

See What I'm Saying

This fall I decided to study a language with a native speaker in a country where it was spoken. So I rode my bike down to the train station and bought a ticket to San Jose, affectionately known as the armpit of the Bay Area. You might guess that I had chosen to study Spanish, but I simply cannot manage the Spanish "R". I haven't a very good English one. In fact learning languages is not one of my strengths despite being bilingual in Thai and English and getting by with my high school French. I'm not a good auditory learner. I have a visual memory, which I hoped would help me with a language you can see—American Sign Language.

Over 30 people had registered for Sign Language 001A at San Jose City College. That number would drop to half in a matter of weeks and only 9 of us (all women) would actually make it to the final exam. The others must've thought it was going to be an easy class with which to fulfill a language requirement. ASL was, after all, still English wasn't it? Or perhaps they had been intimidated by the deaf teacher whose speaking ability was minimal.

On the first day of class he was assisted by an interpreter who spelled for him all of our names and was his voice as he told us what would be required for the class. Michael turned out to be a kind and patient teacher. He was from Hong Kong and had been deaf since a childhood illness. He knew four different sign languages and was adept at communicating with us by writing on the board, using mime, waving, voicing sounds and sometimes drawing pictures.

Queers and Christians

I was not surprised to discover, two weeks into the class, that there were other lesbians taking the class, two of them, both Asian. The first chance I got, I asked them if they were L Word fans. (I had overheard one mention going on the L Word site.) She laughed and said she thought the show wasn't nearly as good now as it had been. A common complaint. What I really wanted to know was, were they fans of Jodi, a new character played by Marlee Matlin who is, of course, deaf. They were not very forthcoming on the subject so I dropped it.

Jodi had been my inspiration for taking up sign. The signing relationship she had with her hearing lover fascinated me in a cross-cultural sense that had me completely hooked. The last time I remember being so obsessed was in 1983 when I was in love with a Catholic girl. To fend of my yearning, she introduced me to Dante's The Divine Comedy. It took me nine months to read this scholarly trilogy, an accomplishment that became a cornerstone of my continuing self-education. The platonic message of his spiritual journey, as he worked through his obsession with Beatrice, was not lost on me. This same erotic energy, I figured, would get me through a semester of sign language. And that would keep my brain spry, something I was beginning to worry about. (During our first vocabulary test my brain actually felt like it was physically being flexed into a new shape. The twenty-year-old sitting next to me turned to me afterwards and we both said "wow".)

Another woman, sitting near me, talked animatedly and loudly. She was hard of hearing (more than me). Her voice was low and flat. She worked in social services and was taking the class because deaf people had a hard time reading her signing. The first day she taught me the sign for riding on the train. Then she told me how she had found God. Oh just my luck, I thought to myself, my new best friend is a Christian. Soon she was asking me to come to a deaf bible studies class so I could practice signing. How was I going to tell her queers and Christians don't mix. Not usually anyway.

I got my chance in the first assignment we were given in which we were to stand up in front of class and sign a story about ourselves. One of the questions we were to answer was if we were married and if we had kids. Since we had not learned the sign for "cannot" or "it is forbidden" I couldn't say that I was not allowed to marry. So I simply said that I was married to a woman and that I was G-A-Y. The teacher nodded and later, when he was giving our corrections, he showed me the sign for gay and one for lesbian. I mirrored the signs as did my classmates. Then they laughed when they realized what they were signing. My new best friend didn't ask me to bible class after that, but she did, to her credit, continue to talk to me.

American Sign Language

ASL, with its spare construction, was prompting me to be frank. There was no mincing of words in this language. It was similar to Thai in that sense, which also had the same effect on me. And like Thai, there were no articles and no conjugation of verbs. The same helping words were used to determine past, present and future. The word order was also similar in that the topic came first followed by the adjectives. But what really set ASL apart was the three dimensional kinetic aspect that allowed verbs to move through the air indicating relationships between subject and object with only the one verb. This made ASL very efficient and faster, in many practical aspects, than English. ASL also required the use of facial expressions, which I thought was great fun, like doing Vaudeville.

During the turn of the century, ASL had been banned from schools because educational authorities (who were hearing) felt the deaf should be schooled in English in order to better assimilate into mainstream culture. Alexander Graham Bell (yes, the inventor of the telephone—he was actually trying to invent a hearing aid) had both a deaf mother and deaf wife, and was particularly adamant that the deaf be trained in the "oralist" method. Bell, like many of his time, was a eugenicist who believed that more deaf children would be born if deaf people married each other. Rather than campaign to outlaw such marriages, he crusaded against deaf schools, deaf teachers and sign language.

That ASL had been a forbidden language of a minority community, for whom it was their preferred language, made it even more compelling for me to learn. Indeed, the debate over whether this handspeak of the dumb was even a language at all had only been settled in the '70s. Deaf babies, once shown sign language, had also been observed to "babble" with their hands. The instinct to create language was so strong, that where clusters of deaf people appeared through an accident of the gene pool, sign language naturally sprung up and was adopted by hearing people as well. I found this instinct for language to be inspiring proof that humans were hard wired towards community and cooperation rather than violence and competition.

School For The Deaf

Just before Thanksgiving the class took a field trip to the deaf school in Fremont (a strip mall suburb now made famous by The Kite Runner). This residential school for the deaf included all grades through high school, including a pre-school. Being sent to boarding school was a big part of the deaf experience, but most love it because it was an all-accessible environment. We saw signs posted everywhere with the words "thank-you for signing at all times". Hearing people were expected to sign, so the deaf would not be left out. It was fun to watch students signing to each other across long distances. The classrooms were all equipped with giant flat screen monitors from which the teacher could show computer-generated lessons. Classes were small and very quiet. We, who were visiting, found ourselves whispering to each other.

In the middle school I stopped to read some of the student essays that were posted. They startled me with their ungrammatical grasp of English. Only then did I realize how truly alien it was to have to learn English if you were deaf; if you couldn't hear the rhythm and syntax of sentences, you couldn't know innately how it was supposed to work. Even though the deaf could see to read, English was still a foreign language to them. I was glad to note that at the high school level, the grammar was considerably improved, but still hardly more than grade school quality.

My grasp of ASL was so minimal I could only catch a few of the signs I was seeing. I began to feel as though I was underwater. The difficulty in communicating suddenly felt overwhelming and the deaf community seemed to be a tight knit group of hearing families linked by deaf relatives. I didn't feel I could tell anyone I was taking ASL because I was smitten by a deaf lesbian on a TV show (even if it was Marlee Matlin). I might as well tell them gay aliens from Star Trek sent me. These thoughts rendered me quite shy about signing to strangers. The only deaf people eager to approach a hearing person were the Baptists who were giving out flyers at their booth. I momentarily considered joining a deaf church.

Testing, Testing

Back in class, the lesbian pair had dropped. We were going at an increased pace and being tested on our fingerspelling. My visual aptitude had served me well in learning all the signs, but when it came to reading fingerspelling I felt as though I was doing mental math. I couldn't remember all the letters I was seeing to make them into words. Then my computer died so I couldn't look up words easily and the signs we had learned earlier were falling out the back of my head. What had I been thinking? I couldn't believe I had actually set myself up to take a final exam when I didn't even need the grade.

As well as fingerspelling and a test on all the coursework, the final exam required us to write and record our performance of a signing story using all 180 words from our vocabulary sheets. This was a list of rather mundane, hetero-centric words full of family members and seriously dull action words and polite greetings. It did have a handful of feeling words like "frustrated" and "cranky" and also included my favorite word "smart", a sign I found both beautiful and sexy. "Smart" was an L Word sign. In the beginning I had been thrilled that nearly every week I was learning a word or two I had seen used on the L Word. "Good Morning" for instance. Very useful after just having spent the night with your new deaf lover.

As for the recording part of the exam, did he really expect community college students to have access to video or digital cameras? As it happened I did have a video camera in my garage, part of a carload of client stuff I hadn't had time to donate. I had also, once, taken a broadcasting class, shooting and editing video footage. That was ten years ago, but I still remembered the basics and the camera was about the same vintage. It even had a blank tape in it. I had no excuse now.

Then it dawned on me. The only way I was going to make it through this exam was to recap season four of the L Word using this list of 180 words, plus whatever others I needed. Michael had already shown us the sign for "make love" (other than the four letter one—the only sign I had learned from Children of a Lesser God). "Make love" Michael wanted to point out was not to be confused with the sign for coffee which only required twisting one hand as on a coffee grinder.

My writing assignment turned out to be, possibly, the most challenging I had ever attempted. It took me four days to construct and would take over twenty minutes to perform, nearly three times the length of everyone else's story. But when I was two thirds of the way through, and I could see it was going to work, I felt completely high—that clean high of relaxed concentration and joy. I had felt the same way when I got to the last canto of Dante's Paradisio.

The end result turned out to be remarkably coherent. With only minor details changed to accommodate my word list, my version was more realistic, streamlined and grounded than the actual show itself. It did have a rather nuts and bolts perspective befitting a Victorian housekeeper, but it satisfied me. I was emotionally exorcised of season four (just in time for season five). I had transformed my obsession into a grasp of ASL and a hunger to learn more. How much did interpreters make? I wondered. There was an online class I could take...


Talking Hands by Margalit Fox. An Account, by a hearing journalist, of a journey taken by deaf linguists and archeologists to a remote Bedouin village to study an indigenous sign language that had sprung up among deaf villagers. Sandwiched between chapters describing the characteristics of ASL and the defining principles of language. 2007.

Through Deaf Eyes. Public Television Documentary and companion book covering the history of the Deaf community in America and the evolution of ASL. 2007.

Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader edited by Raymond Luczak. 1993.

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