Learn Sign Language: The Manual Alphabet and Beginning Vocabulary

If you've always wanted to learn how to sign, here's your chance! Learn the fingerspelling alphabet plus some basic ASL signs.

| September/October 1983

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    Suzette Haden Elgin signs a sentence using vocabulary words presented in this article.
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    The manual alphabet is useful not only for fingerspelling, but for learning basic signing hand shapes.

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Most of us have at one time or another observed the darting hand motions and accompanying facial gestures that serve as speech for the people of the silent world. And that's not surprising, because in the United States alone there are more than 435,000 individuals whose consciousness is never penetrated by sound, and others are joining them each year. Furthermore, as noise pollution increases, that number may grow more rapidly. These folks exchange news, tell jokes, and express their emotions in a form of speech that's alien to the rest of us, unless we learn sign language.

But if you don't have a hearing-impaired loved one, and if no doctor has frightened you with warnings of a progressive hearing loss, you may well question why you should bother to learn a different mode of speaking. (After all, didn't you suffer enough trying to make decent grades in French?) Sure, some 16 million people in the U.S. are at least partially deaf—and, yes, it is a pity that the hearing-impaired segment of our population is cut off from full participation in our society because so few people can communicate with them—but learning another language is a lot of trouble. 

Ah, but suppose I told you that American Sign Language (ASL, or Ameslan) could bring you profit, a sense of pride, fuller sensual expression, and amusement, besides! Wouldn't that information make the effort seem a bit more worthwhile?

If so, you should know that proficiency in American Sign Language is highly marketable. ASL interpreters are well paid. Better still—even in our sagging economy—they don't often have far to look for work. And, of course, if you teach your child how to sign, he or she may become fluent, and what better insurance could you provide your youngster with than a specialized—and marketable—skill?

Then again, gaining mastery over a rare language can really improve the self-image of a child (or of his or her parents). For some strange reason, however, many English-speaking adults are convinced that language study (be it of English or not) is bound to be grimly difficult. However, not having their parents' mental blocks on this issue, very young children tend to pick up German, Russian, or Swahili with relative ease, and such tots can often become "experts" in ASL with disconcerting speed. In fact, the more language activities a child is involved in, the more likely he or she is to perform well in all of them. You may even find that a slightly withdrawn youngster who's uninterested in communicating orally (and probably even less motivated toward writing) will actually get a bang out of "signing."

What's more, since public education tends to be primarily directed toward the ear or the eye, the sense of touch often seems to get lost in the shuffle (though remedial reading teachers do recognize its importance as an extra channel for learning, and sometimes ask their students to trace sandpaper letters with their fingers in the hope of sparking new understanding). Making the hand and arm movements necessary for ASL can reinforce the tactile sense, helping to make up for that lack of "touch stimuli." Furthermore, the increased dexterity and expanded consciousness of body language that can be derived from practicing hand signs are pleasant bonuses for anyone! 

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