Deaf Tables

by Paul Hostovsky

There’s no getting around it, if you want to learn sign language you need to hang out with Deaf people. Because sign language belongs to Deaf people. They’re more than happy to share, of course, but in spite of their magnanimity you will most certainly miss a lot when you’re in the company of Deaf people signing. In fact, not understanding is almost a rite of passage that for some students of ASL never quite passes completely. ASL in the hands of Deaf signers can sometimes feel like a magic trick or disappearing act–now you see it, now you don’t. So when you’re hanging out with Deaf people and the hands are flying and the nuances are zipping by and the inside jokes and banter are being batted around and laughed at heartily and there’s a lot of shared knowledge that you don’t share–about being Deaf, about Deaf things and Deaf people–you can be sure that you’ll be missing a lot. So in a way it’s like the tables are turned. Because now you, the hearing person, are the one who’s left out. And paradoxically–and yet somehow perfectly–you sort of (but only sort of) get to experience what it’s like for Deaf people among non-signing hearing people; what it’s like for them being in the minority and not understanding what people are saying in a world that doesn’t sign. It gives you a taste–just a taste–of what it’s like to be Deaf. The difference, of course, is that Deaf people, unlike hearing people, are very generous and accommodating when it comes to communication, so all you have to do is raise your hand in the middle of the conversation and ask for clarification or repetition, and they’re usually only too happy to repeat or clarify for your benefit. Yes, all you have to do is ask, but that too can be tricky for a novice signer. Ironically, it takes a certain level of fluency and confidence to know and admit when you’re not understanding, and also to know when and how to interrupt. Turn-taking behaviors in signed conversations are different from those of conversations in spoken languages because all the cues and pauses and breathing spaces are entirely visual instead of auditory. Nevertheless, Deaf people are usually happy to include you–to repeat, clarify, and explain–which is all part of their culture of shared communication and the value they place on access to information. Information sharing is a Deaf cultural norm because, historically, access to information has often been difficult for them to come by. So Deaf interlocutors will usually seek to include others by filling them in when necessary–latecomers to the conversation, for example, or those unfamiliar with the topic, or even those unable to see the signer, if their view is blocked, by mirroring the signer and copy-signing what is being said so those who can’t see can also be included in the conversation. It’s a naturally occurring linguistic/cultural magnanimity that is very much a Deaf thing.

I know this because I’ve been hanging out with Deaf people for forty years, trying to master the language. And believe it or not, I still miss a lot. Depending on the conversation and who the conversationalists are, on a good day I probably get like 90 percent (Deaf people often like to quantify things in terms of percentages), which is down to 50 or 60 percent on a bad day. There are times, of course, when I get 100 percent. And then there are times when I’m getting next to nothing. I have often asked myself why this is. Why am I not consistently understanding everything all the  time after all these years of using the language? I think there are many reasons, and those reasons, like the language itself, are complicated. But the fact is, Deaf people understand each other just fine. And if they don’t understand they will usually speak up and ask for clarification. My problem for a long time (and even sometimes still today, I’m ashamed to admit) was my reluctance to speak up. Staying silent when I wasn’t following. Pretending to understand when I didn’t (for which there is a sign in ASL, which is sometimes glossed as DINOSAUR NOD.) Especially in the beginning, I was reluctant to speak up because there was so much that I was missing, and I didn’t want to keep interrupting to ask for clarification. So I tended to just hang back and hang in there and see how much I could get on my own. But I was only getting like maybe 30-40 percent, if I was lucky. And no one likes to be interrupted. Even your most magnanimous Deaf person, if he’s telling a joke or story and he’s on a roll and really into it, will not appreciate or tolerate being interrupted by the novice hearing signer in the room. On the other hand, if another Deaf person in the room interrupts and asks for clarification because s/he missed something, that same Deaf storyteller will almost certainly accommodate the interruption, and without annoyance or judgment. It is not unlike, if the tables were turned, a Deaf or hard of hearing person being reluctant to interrupt a hearing speaker or storyteller to ask for clarification or repetition when all the other (hearing) people in the room are understanding the speaker with no problem. It would draw attention to the Deaf or hard of hearing person–draw attention to their “deficit”–if they asked the speaker to repeat every time they missed something. So they are reluctant to ask. And so it’s the same for us hearing signers in the company of Deaf signers: constantly asking for clarification draws attention to our deficit, which is our lack of fluency in the language and the culture.

And sometimes, when those proverbial tables get turned, the result is a kind of poetic justice . My mother-in-law raised eleven children, four of whom are Deaf. And because of the prevailing educational philosophy at the time, which was to discourage Deaf children from signing and to encourage them to speak orally and to lipread, my mother-in-law never learned how to sign. She learned the manual alphabet, barely, but that was all. And so she communicated with her Deaf children by sometimes spelling out–or simply initializing–the occasional word here and there while enunciating exaggeratedly as she spoke to them orally in English sentences and expected them to lipread her, which unfortunately is pretty much the rule and not the exception when it comes to how hearing parents communicate with their Deaf children. But the tables got turned a few years ago when she decided to sell the ancestral home they all grew up in and to move in with her daughter (number 7) who is Deaf. And her Deaf daughter’s husband is also Deaf.  And two of their three children are Deaf. And the third one, the hearing one, signs fluently. So now, at every meal at the kitchen table, which is a Deaf table, the conversation is in ASL. Beautiful, flowing, flying, speed-of-light ASL. And my mother-in-law is completely left out. Except when someone takes the time, sometimes, only sometimes, to try to include her by explaining why everyone is laughing and what’s so funny, which by the time it finally gets explained to her, isn’t even funny anymore.