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A plea for sign language education

Anna Mitchell
Anna Mitchell

*Editor’s note: Anna Mitchell is a member of the CSU ASL Club*

I love language.

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That may seem obvious, as a writer, but I love language. I love the millions of ways we can play with words, symbolism, allegories and all those other poetic terms you had to study in high school.

Someone recently informed me that they were surprised that I am passionate about American Sign Language. “If you love words so much, how can you love a language that has such a limited vocabulary?”

Declaring ASL’s vocabulary as limiting is blatantly wrong. In English there are many words to pick from that have similar meanings, but ASL isn’t about vocabulary. I know that’s a strange concept, since English is a language where expertise relies on how many “big” words you know the definition of. It may seem juvenile to simplify. But sign language is not primitive or effortless – it’s candid. In ASL, you can use a single sentence to fully encapsulate how something looks, feels and is. In English that takes paragraphs of description.

At the same time, by studying sign language you will learn the meaning to words you never knew. How many of us really know what the definition of “stalwart” is? We all should, it’s in CSU’s fight song. Guess what it means? “Brave” or “strong.” And yes, the sign for both those words are the same. Because they both mean the exact same thing.

By learning sign language, you’ll become more aware of what elements make up a sentence. “Brave” and “strong” are often differentiated because one refers to someone’s emotional state and the other refers to a physical way of being. But “brave” and “strong” aren’t actually the words that matter in creating this difference – “emotional” and “physical” are what is important. ASL forces you to question what in a sentence is important.

If you explained to a ten year old who had been immersed in sign language her whole life to the concept of signifier and signified, I imagine she would grasp it instantly because that’s what exactly ASL is – every single thing you sign has meaning. If something lacks meaning, you don’t say it. I’ve been in half a dozen college classes that introduced the concept of semiotics and most of the twenty-somethings in the class are entirely unable to grasp the concept. This is because vocal languages – especially English – are wordy for the sake of being wordy.

There’s an entire beautiful culture built out of the Deaf community that you can learn about and interact with in an appropriate way if you make an attempt to learn American Sign Language. How many of us have worked customer service jobs where we struggled to help a deaf or hard of hearing individual? Let alone had classmates, teammates, colleagues and family members that we could have known better if we tried to communicate on their terms, instead of insisting they adopt spoken English tendencies or refusing to interact?

Knowing another language is the key to opening doors. Heck, it’s the key to opening practically every door. I cannot encourage you enough to sign up for CSU’s ASL classes, attend CSU ASL Club meetings and Deaf culture events. They are all amazing, and will change your life entirely for the better.

Anna Mitchell literally dreams in sign language and abstractly dreams of a hearing world integrated with sign language. Love notes and hate mail can be sent to letters@collegian.com

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