Most first days of class begin the same: You walk in, do introductions, review the syllabus, maybe get an assignment and then everyone leaves. So it was for all of my classes, except for one.
When I entered this particular class I noticed a sign on the door that said, “Come in, but do not speak.” I obeyed the instructions, taking a seat with the rest of my confused but amused classmates. Our teacher entered the room a few minutes later, confirmed we were all there and then began silently moving her hands.
This odd scene might make more sense if I told you that this class was American Sign Language. The teacher’s hand movements weren’t random but actual words carved quietly in the air; words we students didn’t understand yet, but would learn through a combination of deduction and reference to our textbooks.
In the next hour and a half of silence (broken by our laughter as we gave each other the occasional quizzical look) we learned each others’ names and how to fingerspell them and basic phrases like, “Hello,” and, “How are you?”
After a 10 minute break (the class is 3 hours on Wednesday evenings), we returned to class and were allowed to speak again so we could review the syllabus and get to know each other better, activities that would be much harder to do silently without a better understanding of ASL.
In our introductions, I learned that I was not only the youngest member of the class, but the only biology and pre-med major. Someone asked why I was taking the class if my major was biology. My response was that I needed to take a language class to graduate with an honors diploma and this was the one in which I was most interested.
That was the primary reason, but the question made me think about why else I was taking the class and how I could use what I would learn. I think one of the reasons I was drawn to this language over others is because of my background in theatre. Also, one of my good friends knows ASL almost fluently (although she is not deaf) and I would like to be able to sign with her.
Ultimately, I hope to use ASL as a doctor. Although I don’t intend to work specifically with deaf people, I am sure I will encounter patients who are deaf in my career and my knowledge of ASL could make their visits easier.
I almost didn’t take ASL because of the long and late class time, but now, I can’t think of a better way to spend my Wednesday evenings. For some, silence is deafening, but with ASL, silence is golden.
Here’s a video featuring American Sign Language students doing just that… signing.