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Deaf Jam: the Poetry of ASL

Deaf Jam

Deaf Jam documentary (USA 2011)

Deaf Jam, a documentary which celebrates American Sign Language poetry, is screening on the afternoon of May 10th at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. People unfamiliar with sign language may find it difficult to conceive of ASL poetry. “Like, how does it rhyme?” Poetry in any language is about more than the sounds of the words and sentences; it is about creative ways of expressing ideas and emotions. And ASL is at no disadvantage in that department.

Whereas a word in English is made of syllables and letters, a sign in ASL has the following five components:

  1. Orientation (which way the palm is facing)
  2. Location (of hand(s) in relation to head/body)
  3. Hand shape(s)
  4. Movement (of hands/head/body)
  5. Facial expression

By manipulating these elements, an ASL speaker can express simple and complex thoughts in amazing, innovative ways. Sign language is equal to spoken language in emotional and intellectual range, and, just as English does, ASL uses metaphor, connotation, wordplay, and all manner of poetic devises. ASL is handy with puns and can be flat out ironic. English poetry can make patterns of word sounds; ASL poetry can make patterns of sign shapes. Signs can be shuffled, pulled apart, and reconfigured in ways parallel to how words can be in English and other languages.

ASL does not differ from spoken languages in its boundless capacity to convey even the most nuanced and subtle concepts and feelings. The difference is that, whereas a spoken language is, for a hearing person, an auditory experience—even when read silently—, sign language is visual (except for the Deaf-blind, for whom sign language is tactile), and although it can be transcribed for academic purposes, ASL is not written and read communicatively. Therefore, ASL poetry is not written and read; ASL poetry is performed.

Remembering the observation that, Talking about music is like dancing about architecture,I will not try to describe ASL poetry, but for a hint about the sorts of things involved, consider this scene from the film.

In Deaf Jam, Aneta Brodski,* a student at Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, NYC, is participating in an extra-curricular poetry program.

When Aneta introduces herself, she fingerspells her name (lightning fast) as one normally does, but when she performs (“raps”) her name, she signs each letter (designated by shape) with movement/location that incorporates the meaning of another sign so that her name becomes a story:

A + “dress up”; N + “look at me”; E + “I’m cool”; T + “walking in high heels”; A + “stumble”.

There is a lot more to ASL poetry than that; it’s really something you have to see. And the same goes for Deaf Jam, so if you can, go see the Canadian premiere on May 10th at 3:30pm, Bloor Cinema, 506 Bloor Street West, Toronto. If not, find out more at http://www.deafjam.org/ or PBS.

*Aneta, like her parents, was born deaf. Her language, and the language of her family, is ASL. Statistically, this is uncommon. The typically hearing parents of Deaf children have to—or should!—learn signing as a second language.

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American Sign Language Immersion Camp

In my quest to learn to speak with every person on the planet, I just spent a week immersed in American Sign Language (ASL) at the Bob Rumball Ontario Camp for the Deaf (OCD) 2011″ in Parry Sound.

Since my return, many people have asked me the following questions:

“Did you have fun?”

                                          Yeah, it was fantastic!

“What was it like not to use your voice for a week?”

                                                 You get used to it pretty fast.

“But how much can a person really say in American Sign Language?”

                                                          The short answer is everything and anything,

but I’m going to give you the long answer.

The difference between spoken languages and signed languages is that one is auditory and the other is visual. One is stereo, the other is 3D.

How much can a person really say in French or Japanese or Inuktitut? Everything and anything.

American Sign Language (ASL) is a language. So is Langue des Signes Québécoise (LSQ), as well as Langue des Signes Française (LSF), Japanese Sign Language (JSL, 日本手話 or Nihon Shyuwa), Inuit Sign Language (ISL) and many, many other signed languages around the world. These are natural languages, and they are every bit as expressive as spoken languages.

Phillip's class Level 1B,C,D at Ontario Camp for the Deaf 2011

Phillip's class Level 1B,C,D at Ontario Camp for the Deaf 2011

There are numerous forms of signed communication that are not natural languages. Here are some examples:

Native-American Sign Language, now disappearing, was used for millennia as a lingua franca to enable tribes all over North America to communicate without having to learn one another’s languages. But it never served as anyone’s first language and could not be used to express an unlimited range of ideas.

Likewise, International Sign (IS) can be used to facilitate communication between people who are native speakers of different signed languages, but there is a limit to how much it can express and it is not a language used natively by anyone.

Signed Exact English (SEE) converts each word of an English sentence, even suffixes, into signs. People do not learn SEE as a mother tongue*; it is not a language of the deaf, it is English expressed with signs.

ASL is not English. It makes use of many English words, just as English makes use of many French words. I got to know my teacher Phillip and everyone in his class using only ASL. There was no talking even outside of our classes.

Now that I’ve started to get the hang of the basics, I want to learn more of this beautiful language!

After evening class at ASL immersion camp
After evening class at ASL immersion camp

*Yes, ASL can be called a “mother tongue”, and not just metaphorically. Whereas SEE expresses every English word with the hands, ASL uses non-manual elements (facial expression, body position and so on) in conjunction with signs to express, amongst other things, various aspects of grammar. In ASL, tongue placement can carry meaning, but it is visual rather than auditory.

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