A Journey into the Deaf World and its Sign Language

Hearing sign-language learners describe their common experiences of their journey toward the Deaf world where everyone speaks in signed language. Their experiences invariably involve excitement, naivete, hope and fear, struggle, friendship, support and encouragement, uncertainty, perservance, and acceptance.

Avenues into the Deaf World

There are four general avenues into the Deaf world or Deaf community: audiological, linguistic, social, and political. Ref

A few common paths toward Deaf community for hearing signers are one taking a sign language course and another through a relationship or friendship with a Deaf member of the community. And, another is a signing parent of deaf child.

Sign Language Classes

Depending on the courses and programs, some students may learn a signed language but never have access to Deaf community. In some programs, especially interpreting programs and some ASL programs, some students are required to attend some Deaf social events.

Friendship and Relationship

Some hearing signers learn a signed language through friends, dates, partners, or coworkers. They may be invited to Deaf community at some time later. In some cases, it's only one-to-one.

ASL student Susan Siemens portrays her experience in her beautiful textile work Flight DW124, in which she created for the class Fine Arts in Deaf Culture at Lakeland College/University of Alberta, February 2009. She related her experience to the book Journey into the Deaf World that she had read.

Journey into Deaf World
Flight DW124, textile by Susan Siemens. Photograph by Jolanta Lapiak.

"It was a journey and an awakening. It truly reflects how I feel about my flight or journey towards the Deaf world. It is very appealing to me, but at the same time, it is very scary." -- Susan Siemens, 2009

Susan chose the fabric as her medium for the creative project. For her, it represents life that "individual threads are woven" into life. She titled it "Flight DW124" to reflect that "life sometimes takes a path of its own, and one in which we don't expect."

Journey into Deaf World
Flight DW124, textile by Susan Siemens. Photograph by Jolanta Lapiak.

There are some planets that represent different worlds. Susan explains that the colorful triangles represent "people [ASL students], of all different races, cultures, and walks of life. They are headed towards a common place, the Deaf World. Some veer off and head in different directions." Few ones eventually become a part of the Ameslan community as their language evolves. There is a little padlock on the DW planet. It signifies that "we can visit, explore, participate, read and learn but we will not be able to go there fully, since we are not native. However, we will be changed by our experience and we will be richer for it."

"I hope that it inspires others to think about their journeys, and how it isn't the final destination that affects a person always, but the journey that is important. Would I travel towards a place, again, knowing that I could never arrive? Yes, most definitely." -- Susan Siemens.

Culture Shock

Culture shock is an experience and personal disorientation when a person is transplanted into a foreign culture or setting. Culture shock is a common and natural phenomenon.

There are four general stages of culture shock: euphoria (aka honeymoon), frustration or rejection or crisis (culture shock stage), adjustment or recovery, and adaptation or bicultural stability. The length of time period for each stage varies.

The Honeymoon Stage

The first stage of culture shock is often overwhelmingly positive during which travelers become infatuated with the language, people and culture in their new surroundings.

E.g. Hearing people are excited to learn sign language and decide to take ASL courses. They see beauty in sign language. Everything is exciting and new one the first day of ASL course. They are filled with a sense of adventure.

At this stage, enjoy yourself as much as possible. Go and meet your new classmates and talk with the ASL instructor or Deaf people. Later in the hard stage, you can have support from this network of peers and mentors.

The Frustration Stage

This stage is the most difficult stage of culture shock. Traverlers or expatriates are likely familiar with it. The same cultural differences that initially seemed attractive and exciting might become a source of challenge and hard reality.

ASL students begin to realize that ASL is not an easy language (if you think it is, then you probably have an "easy" or non-native instructor but eventually you will face the reality of language in the real world). The students also are surprised to learn the reality of the history of hearing oppression.

With the school workload and academic pressure and the challenges of language learning (which requires regular attendance), the fatigue sets in. Miscommunications may be happening frequently with other classmates in the target language. Anxiety and insecurity with language use sets in. These are normal, common experiences.

During this difficult stage, hang in there. Seek support. Ask questions or ask for clarification. Communicate one to one with the instructor or via email. Learn mistakes and take feedback with gratitude. See this as an opportunity for growth.

The Adjustment Stage

Frustrations are often subdued as travelers or learners begin to feel more familiar and comfortable with the cultures, people, and languages.

ASL students have overcome the challenges in ASL 101 and 102. Now they become more confident with further language learning in ASL 200 level and beyond. They understand the history of oppression and become more aware of cultural differences. They can adjust to the new cultural norms more at ease and ask questions more comfortably.

At this stage, ASL students probably decide to overcome challenges before learning ASL gets easier in ASL 102 or beyond. Or, at this point, they decide not to continue further ASL courses but they may be grateful for having the opportunity and they may appreciate an experience as they still feel overloaded or their energy level is down.

The Acceptance Stage

During the acceptance stage, travelers or learners have the familiarity and are able to draw together the resources they need to feel at ease.

Hearing students or workers become more familiar and comfortable in a new culture. They know it's not complete; they continue to learn more about the (sign) language, Deaf people, and culture. They become more ethnorelative.

Narrative Journey

A common experiences among hearing ASL students who journey into the Deaf world are the quotes compiled into a narrative:

"Before I took the ASL courses, I was as naive as most people in the hearing world."

"I thought that not being able to hear was a disability or impairment." "I believed that cochlear implants should be the first solution..." "I had no ideas at all about the Deaf culture and the history of oppression." "I was ignorant."

"Now the ASL courses that I have taken opened my eyes to everything that I had shut out previously."

Related posts

Turning off hearing with the ear stopples describes hearing students' experience of silence in classroom.

Deafhood describes a journey toward being Deaf.

Cultural relativism: improving intercultural communication.

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