I teach a class called “Visual Linguistic Analysis.” It’s an interpreting class but we open it to Deaf Studies Majors generally.
It is in essence a Discourse Analysis class that focuses on analysis within context, within setting, evaluating cultural influence as well as markers within the language structure; not just what a person who is Deaf is saying, but how people who are Deaf make themselves understood and how settings and context influence the meaning. It’s fun. Seriously.
On the first day a have a speech (in an academic setting I really should call it a lesson plan) I use this speech to invite the scared to become the inspired. I tell them, “you are not Sign Language students, you are ASL Interpreting students now. You have all the vocabulary you need to interpret almost any topic thrown at you, and starting today we are gonna to convince your brain of that fact.” I spend a lot of time in the class trying to help them understand that vocabulary is only one component of meaning.
We then look at a video of a native ASL user telling a story. When it’s finished I ask, “what was the story about.” Without fail the class consensus is, for example, “it’s about how some Deaf kids get into trouble but then get out of it ok.”
I then propose, “what if I told you that if I show this video to a native user of ASL that person will tell you this is a story about how being Deaf saved their lives? This is a story of Deaf-Gain.”
If I’m lucky I have a class dynamic that trust that I know what I’m talking about (side note: it always makes me chuckle when students are amazed at the insight I have into texts I have been using to teach these principles for 14 years. Um… I’ve seen them once or twice. That being said, last year I was using a text that I FILMED-MYSELF! in 1994 and a student said “the girl’s name is Jennifer…” I marked it as an ‘addition.’ My student challenged me and OH CRAP! she was RIGHT! For twenty-three years I have used this text in workshops and classes and NEVER ONCE did I notice that the presenter introduces the character in the story by name. I’ll just back slowly away from this parenthetical now).
As a class we then walk back, frame by frame, through the story and… boom it’s a story about how being Deaf saved their lives.
I then explain that this is the purpose of the class. The difference between their first understanding of the story and the deeper meaning of the story comes down to a processes they have yet to develop in their brains, visual cues their brains literally ignore. This class begins the process of restructuring their very brain configurations to incorporate the meaning of the visual nuance of ASL into their thought process.
In other words to teach them how to see ASL instead of Signs.
“If you do this right,” I tell them, “sometime around midterm your head will start to hurt. That is your brain physically rewriting itself to incorporate the demands of a three-dimensional visual language structure.”
It is my belief that learning ASL as a hearing person not only shifts the physical structure of your brain (Oliver Sacks would agree with me) it changes the very way you think.
That why I love the movie Arrival.
When I mention that we will be watching this movie in class many of my students get all “scrunch faced” and say, “an alien movie?” Their eyes roll so fast I fear it will lift them off their seats.
I tell them, “aliens are the framework used to tell the story, but the movie is about how language analysis, properly executed, saves the world.”
This gets the interest of a whole new level of nerds.
Arrival, if you have not seen it, is the story of what each hearing person who learns ASL experiences. If you watch this movie and don’t relate, you’re doing it wrong. But, maybe you do not realize the change ASL causes until you have watched the movie.
It is the story of learning not just what the aliens are saying, but of how they make themselves understood.
The main feature of the film for my purposes (and no I’m not giving anything away. Spoiler free!) is how learning the methods cultures employ to communicate changes the very structure of your brain, your mind, and as a result every aspect of how you think about and relate to the world.
Oh, and the parallels between Sign Language and the alien’s language are obvious to the point where the first time I saw the movie in a theatre the stranger sitting next to me whispered, “how is that possible?” To which I whispered back, “Sign Language.” He paused an said, a little too loudly, “oh, right, RIGHT!”
Watch the movie.
Until you do think about how ASL changes the way you think. In spoken languages the meta-concept of an “idea” is an abstract. In ASL it becomes a concrete.
If I want to give you “my opinion” in ASL I can physically hand it to you.
If I want to talk about a person who is not present I must make that person present, I must manifest that person physically in order to refer to them. In essence I can never talk about someone without the person about whom I wish to speak being, in one form or another, right there in front of me.
Think of how each of these elements changes the way your brain processes the meta-information and the subsequent impact that has on your relationship with the concepts themselves.
Pretty deep for a Note from Uncle Dale, I know, but beautiful and inspiring at the same time.
You can identify the base components of a language (signs or words) without being able to communicate the actual meaning and that is no kind of communication.
You have to let it get inside your head and change how you think. If that happens, you’re doing it right