Reading the Signs
This guest blog post is brought to you by Sim Lin, 18-year-old student at Dunman High (IP).
The other day I saw this news item about President Obama replying to a deaf student in sign language, and it reminded me of my own recent experience!
This year I’m 18 and it’s also my last year with my friends in school, which is why we decided to do something fun and different together: learn sign language!
It was mainly my friend Clara’s idea – Clara has this very long bucket list and a very intelligent and creative mind, which results in many ideas and many adventures for all of us!
So one day Clara found this sign language course, and we thought it’d be cool to learn the language for various reasons:
First, to be able to communicate with the hearing impaired, whose handicap is not always visible, and who may struggle with some everyday activities. Second, to get a unique skill that may come in handy in unexpected situations. And third, to learn something fun and unusual with friends! Just imagine, being able to talk secretly anywhere we want!
So how does sign language work?
Just some basic signs used to spell out names and numbers.
Each of us paid $65 for 6 lessons (Beginner Stage 1) over one and a half months, at the Singapore Association for the Deaf (SADeaf).
Our instructors were all deaf; we had an interpreter for the introductory course, where we learnt basic terms and things about deaf culture.
There are about a million deaf people here in Singapore, and those who sign usually use Signing Exact English (SEE2), where you sign every single word just as you say it, following the exact grammar and vocabulary used in the English language. This helps deaf children learn English better.
Other sign languages include the American Sign Language (ASL), which doesn’t use normal grammar, and other Asian sign languages like Chinese and Japanese.
Learning sign language was a totally new experience. In class, we mostly worked on basic terms like the days of the week, grammatical rules, and objects’ names, in neatly structured and themed lessons. The lessons were about two hours long, with a half-hour break.
Given how compact the lessons were, it was very important for us to practice on our own to apply what we learnt in class!
At first, it was a bit weird. Not because the teacher is deaf or because it’s a sign language class, but because at first it’s weird to sign everything we say and shake our heads every time we sign a negative term like “no”, “not”, “never” or “shouldn’t”.
It’s when you can’t use words to express yourself that you realize just how important talking really is in your everyday life!
The universal sign for I Love You. It’s a combination of the signs for i, l and y.
We quickly got used to it, though, and warmed up to each other. Our classmates were a good mix of people of different backgrounds and ages; we had an older taxi-driver/tour guide, a young architect and an engineer in their early 30s, two nineteen-year-old friends, and many others.
Good thing that Jimmy and Elaine, our instructors for the introductory and intermediate courses, were patient and funny with us!
They had us play many games with each other!
In one of them we exchanged sign names (a particular sign you adapt to your name; it could be your favourite hobby combined with your initials, for example) and played a couple of rounds of Uno with a twist – everyone drew a card, and if two people drew the same card, each had to sign the other person’s sign name first. With everyone having to swop names with one another to add another level of difficulty, we had a good time getting confused and laughing at ourselves!
We were also taught the importance of gestures – gesturing is basically miming or somehow showing what you’re trying to say.
Not all deaf people have been educated in SEE2, for personal or for financial reasons. As such, we would need to learn to gesture and clearly express ourselves physically.
This was a lot more difficult than it seems, especially when our minds kept telling us the proper sign instead of an actual gesture, falling back on our foundation in sign language.
That’s when we found out just how physically and facially expressive deaf people have to be every single day! Not only does their language demand it, it can make the difference between being understood by someone and being completely ignored!
There was one game where we stood in a circle and each had to gesture a fruit – any fruit used in any context, so long as it’s recognisable – and the next person had to gesture the previous players’ fruits and come up with one of their own. We went two complete rounds; most of us had a lot of trouble thinking of new fruits!
Our lessons just wrapped up a week or so ago. Clara and I weren’t able to continue to Beginner Stage 2, so this is the close of our chapter on sign language, for now.
Clara plans to volunteer at the SADeaf, so hopefully she’ll get to learn more of the language by interacting with new friends.
Bye for now, and
Thanks, and see you soon!