ASL Grammar and the Deaf Community

Hello and welcome. Today I want to discuss grammar in the deaf community. This topic came up because I got an email through my website. I will paraphrase the email below, just the main point.

I’m a beginner ASL student. When I watch your videos, it seems to me that your signing typically follows English grammar; but I keep getting told again and again in class that Deaf people will expect me to use “proper ASL grammar” to communicate with them. I looked through your videos and it seems like you’ve never addressed this before, so I was wondering if you might talk about grammar within the Deaf community, how it might change from one person to the next, whether this is influenced perhaps by people like you who are heavy readers of written English, and in general how this affects communication when two people chat in ASL. Away from the academic environment, in everyday situations where we’re expected to follow textbooks. I’m wondering what the actual opinions of people are.

Great question! Yes, you can see from watching any of my videos that I’m very English-influenced. A big part of that is that I grew up signing SEE, Signing Exact English. I transferred to mainstream school, started picking up more ASL. Went to college, picked up more ASL. Since then, I do try sign a little bit more ASL than I normally do. But I’m still very English-based.

Signing grammar is SO varied in the deaf community. There’s no… Standard ASL. Honestly, NO deaf person signs “pure and perfect” ASL. None. You may see someone that’s very strong ASL, right. But what people call “true” ASL… No one signs that…all the time. No one. Part of that is because most of us have strong influences from English, spoken English. From our role models for sign, who tend to be hearing interpreters. Hearing teachers who sign. Hearing parents. Most of their signs, it might be actual ASL. But it’s usually strongly influenced by English, because their first language is English.

If you go to any deaf event, and take a look around… Many of them don’t sign strongly ASL. It bothers me when teachers in a classroom tell students they must use proper and perfect ASL grammar when they talk with a deaf person. Must, must, must.

No one really cares. Honestly! My friends… I don’t know any of them that are serious about having to have perfect ASL. Often, I look at a new student that’s learning sign and is awkward. My response is okay. I don’t really care about your grammar. I just–the important thing is communication. That’s all. Communication. That’s the most important thing to us. And! It’s important that you are trying. You’re learning. That’s a big step. That’s more than what most people do. Most people say, “Oh I would love to learn ASL, la la la.” But never actually follow through.

You’re actually taking an ASL class. That’s more important to us than your grammar.

I’m going to add something, with clear emphasis. This is MY opinion, and what I know many people I’m friends with, many people I know think. I don’t speak for everyone. I definitely do not say the opinion of everyone. I know there are deaf people who are… On the extreme end, pound-the-table, DEAF, Deaf power. “You don’t sign ASL? Unacceptable.” Yes. There are people like that. But those people are really a minority. Don’t listen to them. Most of us really don’t care. You can communicate? Great.

I have to add that it really depends on the person you’re talking with. For me and my friends, most of us can adjust to more English or more ASL, we can shift around. So we’re comfortable with whatever. But… There are some people who are very ASL, they grew up with little English, limited language knowledge, maybe their family doesn’t sign, whatever the reason. Those people may struggle to actually understand more English-based signs. But really, we’re used to accommodating and crossing communication barriers. Yes, it’s important to try and be more ASL-based, but is it a must? I don’t think so.

I may be repeating myself a lot, but the point is I don’t think it’s that important. That’s my opinion. Let me know what your opinion is in the comments below. Agree? Disagree? Why? When you comment, seriously, keep it civil. Be nice. Don’t hate on other people. Don’t do that.

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