I see this all the time, paired with looks of dejection or at best, an awkward sheepishness.
I sign badly, sorry…
My ASL is so awful…
I forgot a lot…
Sorry, I am slow…
You don’t sign badly. I don’t care if you only know a few words. Apologizing to me is pointless and is likely to do nothing but make you feel bad about yourself. I don’t see people improving because they feel bad about their signing ability. So stop doing it. I mean it, truly, because so many of us, more than you realize, truly do appreciate effort.
Do we want you to learn more? Yes, yes, absolutely yes. We want the world able to communicate with us. We want friendship to be possible without the barriers of communication. We want parents and children able to, finally, have real conversations. We know that with sign language, and I say sign language instead of ASL just because I’m referring to far more countries than just America, where the deaf communities have riches in signs. Treasures of signed vocabulary, just waiting for you to reach out and accept them.
Berating yourself, telling me or my peers that you sign badly is not being kind to yourself. Instead, take joy in knowing the words you do, proudly, and ask us for more treasures. Tell us you want to improve, now, not later, and we will help. The most impatient of us may only give you one new sign to learn, perhaps two, but those of us who are always ready to expand our own worlds through you are happy to teach you more. Just don’t apologize. Say thank you. Go home and practice it, then get your computer out and look up local deaf socials. It’s easier than you think. Just do a Google search, typing the name of your city and the words deaf social. Something often comes up. If it doesn’t, try for a local deaf services agency. Look into ASL classes. Teach your family what you know.
But I’m busy, you say, I haven’t the time.
The truth is, everyone has the time to learn a basic vocabulary. It may take a long time, but you can get there. Find joy in it. Look up signs for specific words on YouTube during commercial breaks when you’re watching TV. Buy an ASL textbook and learn one sign a day. Practice it every chance you get. One sign a day is 365 awesome words more than you knew the year before, and if I run into you then you’ll be able to use some of those words to brighten my day. Yes, you need to interact with us if you want to really learn the language, otherwise so much will be forgotten. I wrote a post about this, actually, that may help you: You’re probably not going to learn ASL unless you interact with us. This is more geared toward ASL students, but it’s still relevant to anyone with an interest.
No one has demanded you become fluent. We love it, of course, when you go that extra mile. It’s a thrill to us to find unexpected fluency in a doctor’s office, a restaurant, at the movies, in the line at the post office. You don’t have to be the one to go that extra mile, though you could. The truth is, most of those who did go the extra mile to become fluent didn’t do it because they felt badly about their signing.
I will not lie or cover up my opinion. If you’re a parent of a deaf child, I do feel it is absolutely your responsibility to develop stronger communication in the home that is not all dependent on your child to do the work. Giving the children hearing aids and cochlear implants and then expecting that all you’ve got to do is take the kid to speech therapy and appointments to develop their ability to use their devices better is just putting most of the burden in their hands. I don’t think that’s enough. As I have said in another post, although I am not opposed to Cochlear implants, it’s not always what you think it is. That’s why I encourage sign language, specifically ASL in the United States, because I see how effective it is regardless of whether a child uses hearing aids or cochlear implants.
But parents, I say this again and I really mean it. Wherever you are in the process of learning to sign, please don’t feel badly about your skills. Even if you haven’t learned a single ASL sign, please don’t feel badly. We invite you with warm hands, open hearts and minds, even though this is not always easy. We feel protective of your deaf kids, truly we do, and we want to be there for you if you need us. Let us help you cross the tightrope across the chasm.
I want to include a note for the interpreters, who are a valuable resource for us in a world with so many obstacles to communication. We need you, we appreciate you. But I must give you my honesty, and I do this with respect for you. If you are an interpreter that feels it is necessary to apologize for your signing skills in the beginning of an assignment, you may not be ready. I don’t want you to feel bad about this, but I don’t want you to push the truth aside. We need qualified interpreters at every level. So if you feel you need to apologize, or if you feel that doubt inside, there may be reason enough to seek out advice from experienced and certified interpreters. Follow their guidance, take heart, and you will get to a point where you can go into an assignment feeling that you’re giving the deaf client full access to what is spoken. We need that.
You know, I know what it feels like to think your skills are not enough. I have been there, and there are many days I still feel the same way. Although my ASL vocabulary is extensive enough that even some ASL teachers will ask me what a sign is, because we all learn from each other as we go, I’ve never had a masterful skill. My receptive skills are excellent, but my expressive ASL skills are often sloppy. I started off with just speaking and lipreading, then learned SEE, then it became PSE, and now I sign ASL peppered with PSE aplenty. If sign language was handwriting, my handwriting is a little sloppy, while others may have masterful handwriting. But that’s okay. It’s taken me a long time to come to peace with that and learn that I don’t sign badly. I am just a profoundly deaf man that needs to work on my “handwriting.”
Embrace where you are, strive to improve at whatever pace you can keep up, and appreciate those who are masters. If they are patient as well, they may guide you.
I saw this video the other day, with a grandmother who was talking about how she “signs badly” but she’s learning because she loves her granddaughter. It was a touching video, of course, but she didn’t sign badly. She was a novice, a beginner, and in some ways a beginner is as beautiful a person inside as an expert.
You only have to have the eyes to see it yourself.