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Understanding American Sign Language

Sandra Rivers, left, the owner of Deaf's Delight Cafe in Newark, uses sign language to speak with her friend, Kent Willis, who is deaf and hard of hearing. (TNS)

By Aspen Strauss


Does this sentence read differently? Maybe it stands out because it’s all in capital letters. Or because it’s missing some words that make the sentence complete? This sentence is called gloss. When one language is rewritten in another, or when we see someone signing and it is then written down or typed out sign for sign and include notations to account for the facial and body grammar that goes with signs we are glossing sign language. 

ASL is a visual language, using hands to communicate as the brain processes linguistic information through the eyes. Signers are able to use their hands, face, and the space around them to communicate and tell stories in ways that are fascinating and mesmerizing to watch. 

This language is not a universal language. Each country has its own sign language and different regions have dialects, much like the many languages that are spoken all over the world. 

ASL is finally getting the recognition it deserves by now being accepted by many high schools, colleges, and universities in fulfillment of modern and foreign language academic degrees required across the United States. Recently, social media has now taken it upon themselves to involve the Deaf community and include them more than ever by making it a point to include subtitles to every video, spread awareness to the community and educate on the subject matter. 

Rachel Whitmore, American Sign Language professor here at Grand Rapids Community College believes that it’s important for people to learn the background behind ASL. 

The Deaf community has a story to share and that story is one that is deeply rooted in their culture and language,” she says, “You cannot learn one properly without the other.”  

Whitmore started to learn ASL because she found it to be the language she best understood.

I am a hearing person, I will never fully understand the deepest parts of Deaf culture and language however, it was the language I found I connected the most with,” Whitmore said. “I am grateful the Deaf community has taught me their language and the more I learn the more I respect its many complexities. One of my favorite parts of teaching ASL is seeing the light on students’ faces when they finally connect with the language. Many students that enter my classrooms have already tried another language and found learning it really difficult. I believe this is because some students struggle with learning auditorily. ASL offers the kinesthetic/visual learners a new beginning/chance.”

Here at GRCC, ASL is accepted as a foreign language requirement as long as you have passed and completed a full year’s worth but most colleges would like to see you complete at least two or more. Currently, although ASL is considered a recognized language many colleges and universities are all different on what they do accept and what they don’t, along with if they provide classes for you. With the limited amount of educators willing to teach this language often it is quite difficult to find schools that offer a minor or teach classes. 

Chris Tolly, 19, of Rockford, a freshman at GRCC, also took professor Whitmore’s ASL class and has taken ASL since his freshman year of high school.

“I started taking ASL because I was awful at Spanish and multiple of my friends were doing it,” Tolly said. “I think that everyone should learn a little even if it means just learning the basic ABCs of fingerspelling because it will 100% make a Deaf person’s day if you sign with them.”

With the recent flood of support from the hearing community, the Deaf community now feels more included when it comes to videos on social media, specifically on Tik Tok. With the ability to add text to each video you post, creators are now taking it upon themselves to add subtitles to their videos and the response has been nothing but positive and thankfulness from the Deaf community. 

The Deaf community has been forced to learn English and speech to be part of our hearing world. But never have we been in their shoes to know what it’s like to live in a world with no sound. Humans aren’t all the same and often it’s quite hard to be the odd one out in a large group of people. Learning something as simple as the alphabet by fingerspelling is a start in the right direction because you never know when you will run into someone who isn’t able to hear you and the information will come in handy. Check out the ASL alphabet to mimic what your hand shape should look like and start learning today. 



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