Becky Fenton-Ree: I’m an expert in BSL, but how did I fare when I went to American Sign Language class?

Posted on December 11, 2013



For the first time in twenty five years, I am not an active member of a Deaf Community and I’m on the other side of the language classroom – learning American Sign Language.

Six months of living in the United States meant I was missing signing, being part of a Deaf club and the laughter that always happens on a meet-up. Despite hours spent googling and contacting various people who put me in touch with interpreters working at the local primary school, there was no Deaf community that met up.

The nearest group meeting was an hour and half drive away so I found the next best thing: a college that taught basic ASL for one semester, twice a week, during the day. However, having no childcare meant that I couldn’t go! They did do a 6-week community evening course and I figured it was a start, so I signed up for that.

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I turned up to class like a typical Level 1 student, full of enthusiasm and excitement. The classroom was laid out in the traditional format so I sat at the back as I wanted to see what was going on; I hate doing the ‘chair-swivel-turn-around’ move several times a class to see what everyone is signing.

The teacher asked us all to introduce ourselves. I explained that I had been involved in the British Deaf Community for twenty five years and done a lot of foreign travelling and so picked up International Sign Language and some of that included ASL, so now that I was living in the states I wanted to acquire ASL properly.

The majority of the students wanted to learn because they were part of a church; one was a nurse, and the only male in the class (interesting to see similar patterns of class make up as in the UK!) was learning as his grandchild was signing.

Our teacher explained that she has worked as an interpreter for the last ten years within education and had an extensive understanding of the Deaf Community. It was her first time teaching adults, and after 40 minutes she was amazed that we had got to grips with the alphabet so quickly (she had been told that we would need the full two hour class to do this) but she happily improvised and she covered a few animals and the numbers 1-20.

So the journey of conquering ASL began!

It was hard being on the other side of the table; having taught adults for the last twelve years, it was hard to be the student who didn’t know very much. However, I knew that finding a good ‘study-buddy’ was essential in developing my ASL faster.

In the first class, the lady I sat next to in the first week struggled; however, in the introductions, one of the other students explained she had worked in Korea teaching English for the last fourteen months– I knew she was the best partner in the class and by coincidence, she sat next to me in the following class. It was fate!

Mandy knew how to learn and teach a language; we both understood and used language-learning strategies so we could acquire language with a little more ease.

I understood the principles of ASL grammar (I had asked lots of questions of the tutor to check that I was correct) and so showed her how it should be structured. We had similar language-learning styles and understood SLA (Second Language Acquisition) to a similar depth, so we met for coffee and talked about our ‘interlanguage’ and SLA techniques.

I went to the library and found the ASL dictionary ‘The Joy of Signing’ and started to make notes of all the signs that were the same in BSL so that I could increase my vocabulary quickly and not corrupt Mandy when trying to put together sentences and throwing in random BSL signs!

We found ourselves signing a sentence and then mouthing the missing word, or scrambling to look it up in a dictionary (sounding familiar?!?) because we both knew that putting new vocabulary into a sentence was one way to be successful learners.

In subsequent classes, I always sat next to Mandy, as we both knew we could speed up our learning process faster together. I also had to smile as I caught myself (and Mandy) displaying language learning strategies to notate signs to aid recall: posing the new handshape to be learned and crudely drawing to show the position of handshapes (see below).

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However, having the benefit of understanding BSL Linguistics, I could use a more advanced notation system that described the location, movement, position, etc, using the correct descriptor, or I would use the BSL in a circle to show that this word was the same sign as a BSL sign. That said, I found handshapes that had no resemblance to any BSL sign the easiest to learn.

Knowing how crucial verbs are (in any language), I looked in my dictionary and started to learn verbs so that I could formulate sentences faster. I was being a pro-active learner and with Mandy being as keen as me, we were putting together adult-themed conversations such as when her boyfriend was next visiting, or why she was looking so tired when he was, but signed at toddler-like speed.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt so frustrated in using sign language and this reminds me of my Level 1 students who are desperate to convey a thought but are hindered by vocabulary.

I also used to inwardly sigh when students would learn a sign from the dictionary then when they replicated it, it was wrong or there were better alternatives; Mandy and I were doing just that and were being corrected by our tutor!

Oh the frustration when we thought we had learnt a sign then having to re-learn it!

The teacher asked me in class to show everyone the BSL alphabet, and the other students were astounded at how different it was. They commented on why it was so different and wouldn’t it be easier if everyone signed the same – at least hearing people are consistent in their response 3,000 miles away!

Mandy is just as motivated, as she loves to learn languages and is intrigued to see where this takes her, perhaps a future teaching job. We have two weeks left of our six week course and when it is over there is no part two. So between us we are hatching plans….

This is part two of Becky’s diary of her search for American Deaf culture. Read the first part here. Look out for the next instalment soon!

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