As I’ve mentioned before, it wasn’t long (30 seconds?) after I found out that my baby, Alex, was deaf before I decided I’d need to learn American Sign Language, though I didn’t start taking classes until he reached the age of about two, if memory serves me right. I knew the alphabet and could count to twenty before I started, so I was ahead of the class in these things. The beginner’s class was basic – learn to spell our names, talk about our families, say where we lived, worked, and how we got there and back. Great stuff if you’re an adult. However, that wasn’t why I was going.
During the second level we learned, among other things, relationships, a few different objects, counting to one-hundred and beyond, and professions. So I was learning the sign for “secretary,” while what I really needed was the sign for “squirrel.” There is nothing on earth quite as frustrating as not being able to explain to your toddler what the simplest, most common things are. For instance:
“It’s a bird. Wait, let me look it up.”
(Three minutes later) “It was a bird.”
Obviously neither of us had that much of a vocabulary if we didn’t know what, or how to sign what, a bird was, but you get the idea.
Had I known about Baby Sign, I might have taken the classes. But I didn’t. If it was a “thing” in Ottawa in 2002, I didn’t know it. By the time I finally made it to a Baby Sign class, I was at Level 4 in ASL, and Alex knew all the signs they were teaching the parents. It was interesting though. I’ve heard it’s a wonderful tool for parents–if they’re able to teach it to their kids–to understand their baby’s needs before the child is able to form spoken words. I’d be interested to know if anyone out there used Baby Sign, and if so, how it worked out for you.
Why, if I wasn’t learning anything obviously useful, did I go all the way up to Level 4? Because they were teaching me to see. For three hours a week I had to communicate without using my voice. We sometimes played games where we had to get up in front of the class and fingerspell something, and then another of us had to write it on the board. Tests were signed to us and we had to write down our answers. It was crazy difficult, but it was fun. And it gave an appreciation of how focused a Deaf person must be to understand his or her own language. The Canadian Hearing Society had one program I would have liked to have tried, in which they deafened hearing people. Participants would go in first thing in the morning and have silicone put in their ears. Then they would go out into the community–coffee shops, restaurants, stores, services–with someone from CHS to help, and just survive for the day. The rules were no speaking, and no note writing. It was apparently a real eye-opener, so to speak.
Alex and I muddled through those early years of communicating. I felt lucky to have someone to ask questions of once a week if I was really stuck. Youtube wasn’t around until 2005, (yes, believe it or not we survived without Youtube once upon a time!) and typically, computers couldn’t handle the bandwidth of a video anyway, so I was stuck with books with awkward drawings if I had no human to help. There’s really nothing better than having a native speaker in any language to guide a new learner. I’ve watched hearing people who knew no sign try it for the first time – most will do it wrong when shown. As easy as it looks, it’s not.
My A to Z theme concerns the joys and challenges of being the hearing mother of my Deaf son, Alex. To learn more about his beginnings in life, click here to go to my first A to Z entry.