Deaf-Centered Topics

Stop saying you sign badly

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…

Background image by Shivmurthyu /Pixabay.com
Background image by Shivmurthyu /Pixabay.com

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.


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J. Parrish Lewis was born and raised in Maryland. In his youth there, he and his brother had many adventures in the dogwood forests near his home. His nostalgia for these adventures has strongly influenced his characters, their relationships, and their perspective on the world they inhabit. He moved to California’s coast to earn his degree in communications and now lives with his family in the San Joaquin Valley. Lewis is profoundly deaf and uses American Sign Language to communicate. He enjoys hazelnut coffee, captioned movies, and walking his dog.

40 Comments

  • Marla L Bock

    I’m a parent with a Hard of Hearing girl and Santa Ana School District nominated April the Deaf month we’ll celebrate with a resource fair in Taft DHH Elementary school on Santa Ana CA please encourage the Deaf Community to attended this event this gona be Wonderful thank you for your attention. I love my contact e-mail and please contact me for send more information about it.

  • Christina Lanz

    I want to thank this person, I need the encouragement that was here, I also am learning ASL, so that I can help the Deaf community in my city, and I realize I need to learn more and am working hard to do that. and at my age, it is a race against time, but what time I have I am willing to go back to school to learn what I can learn to help where I can. I love the ASL it is so picturious.

  • Stacy Abrams

    Hi-

    Thank you so much for sharing! What you wrote is pretty much why I came up with the #whyisign idea! (the grandma is my sister’s mother-in-law, and my niece!). The mother-in-law was truly inspired by the comments in the video, and it has inspired her to be more assertive and proactive in her learning.

    I am sharing this on the whyisign wall, and I hope it is ok by you-

  • Mervyn James

    Yes this is why I stopped producing signed video output, too many critics, these people need to understand if they are too critical of people learning to sign or hoping to interact with signers, then we will stop attemtping to bridge the divides.

  • Ron Weiss

    Beautiful article. Thank you! My wife and I were motivated to learn ASL because we have a grandson who is hard of hearing. After 5 years, we are slow and sometimes struggle to understand a deaf person who signs very quickly. But you’re right, we don’t sign badly, we sign wonderfully. We love this beautiful language.

      • Melanie Szelong

        My first ASL class in college included a grandmother who wanted to learn the language better so she could Skype with her grandson. It would have been easy for her to blow it off because he lived on the other side of the country but she valued and wanted a meaningful relationship with him. I wish all hearing parents/grandparents felt this way.

  • Linda Berry

    I am a late deafened adult. I’ve taken ASL classes and gone to a few Deaf meet-ups. I guess I should go again. I’m learning but not using it enough to help my family learn. This article is inspiring, I thank you for it.

  • Michele Westfall

    Good article. I’d suggest not saying “sign language”…because too many hearing people think it means just ONE sign language. Say “signed languages” instead and that’ll achieve your objective.

  • Andrew N

    Truly inspiring. Hearing Families will certainly benefit enormously ~ no need for living with strangers(deaf relatives) for many years!

  • Vicki

    What kind words! I needed to hear them. I am a retired teacher of the hearing impaired. I have been out of the field for over ten years and recently realized that because of lack of use, my skills have slipped a lot. I have become hesitant to sign anymore and find that my receptive skills are horrible now. But, as a hearing…well now as a hard of hearing person…I too have a request for the deaf world: If we do sign to you…don’t become so excited that you start signing fast and furious as we look on trying to keep up. Ask what speed we need. If we are professionals in the field, we can tell you…go at it. But if we are amateurs, we can then tell you that so that we don’t become overwhelmed and give up? I say this kindly, so please do not be offended. Just trying to communicate our needs too..so that we CAN bridge that gap. Again…great article…one that I needed to “hear”.

    • J. Parrish

      Sounds pretty reasonable! Although, I’d like to discourage the use of “hearing impaired” because the majority of the deaf community doesn’t like the term. We don’t feel impaired. Deaf and Hard of Hearing are better terms to use. 🙂 Glad you liked the article, and if we ever meet, be sure to let me know what speed to sign at!

  • Leslie

    Christina Lanz, are you a sister?
    Anyway I love this post! When I was learning I always felt inadequate and felt I was a bad signer. Truth is, I was just new and learning. I had to stop comparing myself to others, stop beating myself and and just try. Keep practicing and teaching the bible in ASL, that is my goal.

  • Chris

    Thanks for encouraging sign language! The Deaf community needs to work harder to encourage hearing people to learn sign. If every Deaf person met with a hearing person and taught them a few simple signs, that would go a long way to defeating audism. Many hearing people are afraid to make mistakes, or they never start because they do not know any Deaf people. We Deaf should support them.

  • Gerard Grigsby

    Thank you so much for the encouragement! I’m learning ASL now and picking up new words bit by bit. Sometimes, I feel like I’m not learning ASL quickly enough, but I have to trust that my lessons will pay off in the long run. Wishing you all the best in life!

  • Noruega en Argentina

    Absolutely love this! There is no need to put oneself down. I used to do it sometimes myself but realized there is no need to! I studied ASL in the US and got to a comfortable level, loved going to all sorts of events and chat away, the most important was always being understood and understand, not whether I made mistake or anything like that. Now I live in Argentina and have been working on my Argentina Sign Language for 2.5 years, and try to have the same attitude: just go with the flow, not be ashamed to ask someone to repeat themselves, and have fun! (I find Deaf people to be very patient with me, which I really appreciate! Several people here in Argentina have told me it was because they were so used to not being understood by hearing people, or having bad communication, that it had made them very patient with new signers.)

  • David Jonsson

    i need all the encouragement i can get. i discovered my Deafhood at 39 years old. I grew up with hearing aid(s), mainstreamed with no ASL, nor Deaf peers or mentors. I wrote about my experience in my book on amazon called “You Are Deaf, Congratulations!” Most people say sorry about being deaf, but Im trying to put positive spin on it.

  • Dawn

    Thank you for expressing this, I often feel like a fumbling fool too because my skills are limited, but I am very proud that I learned the alphabet when I met a deaf friend in a college class – hey, it worked to converse without writers cramp!… then learned loads when I coached a deaf child for soccer (my daughter’s friend). Have taught my kids the alphabet before kindergarten, and given them certain words that may be helpful. It really hit home with me, that it didn’t matter if I was “rusty” or “slow” when I was able to help a sweet girl order fabric cuts at the local store… i was bubbling inside with a mix of embarrassment (at my rusty skills) and joy that SHE instantly saw that I had some way to help her (I asked her if I could help her when I recognized she had no voice)! She taught me some new words that day, and now I am working on learning everything I can from “Joys of Signing”… So I am happy to hear YOUR side of it, that we in the speaking world need to embrace y’all more so we can help bridge that gap. Again, thank you – I will personally keep learning.

  • Rob

    You say you need to work on your handwriting but your writing skills are beautiful. Thank you for a great article from Hard of hearing/deaf father who has only taken sign language more seriously since my Deaf son was born. You have opened my eyes. I haven’t been fair to him in that my efforts to sign are mostly only to him and I have not done well in my efforts to share or broaden the horizons of ASL to those around me. I will do more now.

    Thank you mom and dad. I would not be where I am today without you. Reading this article, particularly about getting hearing aids or CI’s and putting it on them literally and figuratively, doesn’t accomplish much. It’s not without the hard work of the parents and kid wearing them that those instruments will be helpful. I pictured as I read that – buying food for dinner and expecting my young son to be able to make dinner for himself.

  • ler918

    Thank you for this. I found this post while doing some Googling to see if anyone else felt they sign as slowly as I do. I just started 4 months ago, but I want to get a lot better. I may want to be an interpreter someday but right now it just seems like a big dream. I appreciate the encouragement!

  • N

    I was wondering, if when attending the events, I could bring a notepad or something to keep track of what I’m learning. Would that be considered rude?

  • T

    I found this post while looking up how to apologize for my bad ASL. I think I will look up “I’m a beginner” instead. Thanks for posting this J, it’s such a good reminder.

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