My family signs boring

By Dr. Kathryn Woodcock, 2002

This is not to say they sign boringly. No, they typically sign with great gusto, with the sort of emphasis one associates with “Not!!” or for those of us who can’t quite relate to Wayne and Garth, simply think back to “You bet your sweet bippy!!” What I mean is, the only sign they know is BORING.

I don’t exactly know how it came about that this is the only sign they have absorbed. For about five years, I have signed around the house whenever I have had a deaf friend with me. They can’t retain or recognize the sign for TEA or POP, the sign for DINNER, or BATHROOM, and heaven knows they would be blown away with a sentence, even in Signed Exact English.

The reasons vary. Mother finds the alphabet too hard to form on her arthritic hands and is paralysed by the idea of having to remember all the signs. Father is fascinated by the theory of sign language, positing a similarity to the ideographic written languages of China. My brother “will probably take a course, eventually” and my sister, … Well, there’s a million excuses, isn’t there? Basically, they have never been put to a real test, because I have been taking up the slack, lipreading, letting events just happen around me, and bringing my own signing companion to family events so that at least I can amuse myself.

I do myself a bit of a disservice, I think. Invariably, I am introduced to their friends and acquaintances with “Kathryn is deaf, but if you look right at her, she can lipread you.” This is a vast improvement over “Kathryn has a hearing problem,“ the introduction of my youth, and is preferable to leaving the explanation of my inevitable non-comprehension to me. But it is false advertising.

I cannot always lipread them if they look right at me. They have walrus moustaches, buck teeth, thick accents, cigarettes and gum. They fidget with their hands over their mouths, and grin at me, as if a grin shows suitable sympathy for the pathetic lot of deaf people, or they nod as they talk, as if to cue me to the response they expect. Give up. I couldn’t lipread them if they were mouthing the answer to the $64,000 question. Nothing I say or do gets this across to the family, even when they end up repeating stuff for me. I should be proud that the people who have known me so long seem to think I have superhuman powers.

Frustrated as I am with this situation, nothing I have done over the past five years of signing or decades of hit-and-miss lipreading has penetrated this perception that I can understand anything I put my mind to. Lacking any other strategies, I have just been sitting quietly back, and to my amazement, an interesting phenomenon is unfolding. My sister has a 2½ year old daughter, the first of Woodcock, The Next Generation. What has transpired is evolution at its best. Where her elders had failed, this little genius has managed to learn food signs, animal names, family relationship words, and assorted other signs. Up till now, it’s mostly been just naming things with their signs, but just last week, as she was shovelling popcorn into her little mouth by the little fistful, I signed to her with a conspiratorial smile, “you piggy.” Her eyes lit up as comprehension dawned: You can make sentences with these things! Quickly she signed back “no, you piggy!!” Now she’s picking up the concept of the two-fingers-as-legs classifier. It’s like a bike down a hill now. Now my sister knows most of the signs my niece knows, because they watch the Sign Me a Story video together. My niece shows her daddy and Nanny and Grandpa and they’re soaking them up too. What I couldn’t do, my niece is doing for me— teaching my family signs. Give it another ten years…