Sign language works like a charm

By Dr. Kathryn Woodcock, 2002

For years I mocked those who asked if I could sign. Didn’t know any deaf people, did I? (No, I didn’t even know myself then.) Then came the insecurity, the fear of failing. Going as a stranger to the deaf club with halting fluency at both the uptake and expression, and knowing that the culturally Deaf come second only to the French in linguisitic haughtiness.
Insecurity about communication had become a perpetual state for me. Never knowing if I would be able to pull off another lipreading trick, either avoiding or dominating interaction with hearing people. Now here I was acquiring a whole new language in which to be insecure.

One unusual factor added to my insecurity, and that was the travelling I did in my professional life and as an ALDAn enthusiastically committed to the ALDAcon scene, during the years I was learning to sign. I would master a sign at home and get midway through ALDAcon before I would realize that half the folks think I am talking about my honeymoon each time I mentioned the hotel. My insecurities would get the better of me, and I would go home, having ‘corrected’ my sign, only to find every single soul back home making hotel the same way I had in the first place. I would try to remember the conversion formulas. When I say boss, you see government; you say boss, I see coach. When I rebuilt my confidence and tried to change my signs, like my currency, at the border, I was stymied again when I travelled to Manitoba and found nobody knew the United Way sign, so clever and obvious at home, and that (aboriginal) Indian is rotated 90° from Ontario’s sign. Likewise, I would drop the Torontonian sign for early and make the sign on my nose, like in Chicago, but in Boston, they would look at me like, “What?”. I would learn the sign for birthday in Massachusetts, and get blank looks in Illinois. Cochlear implant, Hallowe’en, … every time I turned around, it seemed that a sign I ‘had down’ was an illusion.

Still, it became somewhat predictable, that there would be vocabulary differences, and it stopped making me insecure. Now, I’m not always immediately understood but I know from experience that I can clear things up, which is a lot more optimistic than I feel about my lipreading. I am not so quick to believe my signs are wrong any more, and my vocabulary has begun to congeal.

My sign vocabulary is like a charm bracelet, with the signs I use for particular concepts —like little semantic souvenirs—tending to correspond to the customary sign used wherever I was when I learned it. Like a charm bracelet, it makes an interesting conversation piece, and thanks to signing I am no longer petrified at the thought of conversation.