Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Extraordinary Lessons from an Extraordinary Language

For nearly half my life, I was certain that I was meant to go and live overseas full-time. Since I was about 13-years-old, it has always been my dream to travel abroad, pencil, paper, and camera in hand.  I wanted to capture what's going on around the world - stuff that the general media doesn't necessarily focus on.  I wanted to travel and share the tell stories of those around the world, and to tell of what God is doing with His people.  I’ve spent the last 9 years preparing myself for this journey. I’ve travelled, lived overseas, read books, lived overseas, and studied about mission work, journalism, and anthropology. 

Little did I know…That dream would later be molded to look a little different.

The city of where I live has many cultures within its borders. We are a huge melting pot, a huge tossed salad. I have American, Hmong, Mexican, Chinese, British, and French natives as neighbors. Yet, when I thought about working with other cultures, these local culture diversities never came to my mind as a group to work with.

It wasn’t until I started to learn about ASL, Deaf Culture, and the Deaf community, that I started to feel passionate about working with a local culture different from my own…A culture within my culture. A cultural group I’ve somehow unintentionally overlooked for most of my life.

Growing up, I had been slightly aware that there were Deaf people. The TV show 7th Heaven had a character by the name of Heather in their show. My sister started learning ASL in her late teen years and often signed in front of me, and we had a lady in church who use to use ASL as a ministry in our church.  My high school teacher also taught ASL and had an occasional Deaf student come to meet her while I was still at school.

It wasn’t until I took an ASL class  myself that I really started to see ASL - and the Deaf community. In the past I acknowledged that the language was there, but I really didn’t put much thought into what I was seeing. I was young and had yet to fully be educated on the topic.

ASL is a beautiful language and is greatly valued by the respectable and brilliant Deaf community.

I accidently fell in love with ASL. Before taking my first ASL class, I was journalism major…And now I’m not. (And I know that change shocked many people who have known me nearly all my life, including myself.)  Now I hope to become skilled enough in the language to become an interpreter. This has been a wonderful, unexpected journey that I’m glad I’ve been on for the last two years.

While learning about the wonderful culture and language, I’ve also learned a lot of other life lessons while learning this language.

Lessons I’ve learned while learning my second language, ASL:

1. My goal is to become an interpreter and I’ve learned that I really need to protect my ears. I now pay extra attention to how loud I listen to my music…In a sense, my ears are no longer just a part of my body allowing me to hear different sounds and conversations. My ears are a part of my future career. My ears are now a bridge for communication for others. They are no longer my own, as my career choice will allow me to help hearing people connect with those who are Deaf. (Although, I have to admit, I still have fun jamming sessions while driving down the road with friends on occasion.)

2. I’m a perfectionist, never wanting to make an error. But…Life is full of mistakes, just like the process of learning a second language. I’ve learned that it’s okay to mess up. It’s okay to make an error. It’s okay to make language bloopers! If I mess up while trying to sign something, it’s okay to acknowledge them, have a good laugh, and to learn from them. For example - last semester I was trying to tell my ASL teacher, Nancy, that I was feeding my aunt’s cat while she was away in Hawaii. Instead, the way I signed it came across completely different than I intended. Nancy’s face when from a shock and horrified expression, causing me to wonder, “Oh no…What did I just say??” Turns out, I told her I was eating my aunt’s cat…not feeding it!! (It’s amazing how one direction and movement of a sign can change the whole meaning! Oops!) While I felt slightly embarrassed, Nancy and I just sat in her office laughing about it and months later it’ll still be brought up as a joke. The error caused a good laugh, but more importantly? I took my mistake as a great learning experience and am now very aware of how to sign that I am feeding an animal, or person, without saying I am eating them.

3. Learning ASL has taught me to focus. It has taught me to focus on the person I’m in front of, to fully dedicate myself to the moment I am with my Deaf friends or in my ASL classes. Instead of pulling out my phone to check for text messages, I am intentional and I focus. For example…Let’s say that I’m with a group of Deaf friends. If I pull out my phone to check for messages and I take the time to respond, I’ve probably just missed a good chunk of what my friends are trying to tell me. Learning ASL has taught me to put my phone – and any other distractions – away. It has taught me to prioritize the moment I’m in and the person I am with.

4. I’ve learned to ASK questions!! Although I have a good background of ASL classes, I am not fluent. I’ve learned that if I don’t understand something – I need to ask for my friends and teachers to repeat what they’ve signed. If I don’t catch their fingerspelling, I need to ask them to repeat it and to slow down. If I don’t understand a sign, I need to ask for the sign’s definition. Learning that it is okay to ask questions has made a big impact in my life. I’ve noticed that this new habit even transfers to my other classes, like math. I’m no longer timid or shy on asking for assistance in understanding things.

Every now and then, my brain does kind of space out. For example…The other week I was talking with one of my teachers between classes. She was telling me that her pool was having problems as something was broken, and that it would cost her ‘X’ amount of dollars to do. I caught all of what she was saying – except the fingerspelling of what was broken. (Although I’ve seen improvement in my reading of fingerspelling, I still need to do a lot of work on improving my skillset even more.) Before I knew it, my teacher was asking me, “Did you understand what I just said?” The thing is, I did understand most of it…but not all of it. I asked her to repeat what she had told me, and she basically told me, “That’s why I thought. I know you well now – you get a look when you’re not understanding what I’m saying.”

It’s not that I intentionally wasn’t telling her I didn’t understand all that she signed to me. That’s not it at all. I want to understand what my teachers and friends are telling me. It’s not fair to my friend and/or teachers if I pretend like I know what their saying if I’m sitting their completely lost…and it’s not fair to myself either. The more ASL classes I’ve taken, the more I’ve gotten comfortable asking questions. Sometimes though, like the other day, my brain just goes into, “Oh man! I didn’t catch the fingerspelling”, mode…In turn, making my brain go into processing mode, trying to process what I just saw, just like this example from earlier in this semester. (Sometimes I don’t even realize that I have no idea what someone just told me until the conversation is over and I’ve already walked away. Can you say “spaz moment”??)

After my teacher repeated what she told me, I realized I did catch all that she told me and understood everything…everything but the fingerspelling of the word “pump”. Her pool pump is the cause of her pool problems.

The more I interact with those who are Deaf, the more I am trying to become aware of my signing and processing habits, and the ones I need to keep – or break.

5. Number four basically plays into number five. Learning ASL has taught me that I shouldn’t assume what someone is telling me. If I’m not sure, I need to ask questions. I need to seek clarity.

6. Learning ASL has taught me about worship. Again, I’m not fluent - yet. I’m not yet an interpreter. However, when Sunday morning comes along and I find myself sitting in a church pew as the worship team leads the congregation into a song, I often find myself thinking instead of singing. I don’t know a lot interpreting music, but I do know you have to understand the meaning to have the ability to interpret what is being said, or what is being sung.

During our worship time at church, I find myself sitting in the back pew trying to figure out how I would sign different lyrics. I find myself thinking, “What does this song mean?? Do I really understand what I am – and what I have been – singing? Or am I just singing along out of habit?” It’s taught me to pay attention to the words being spoken around me, or the words in a song. It’s taught me to see the true depth and meaning of worship songs, and it’s taught me that I sometimes don’t understand as much as I thought – even if I have been singing a song all my life. (Which still plays into number four…It has taught me to ask questions, and not just with people who I sign with, but with written words and spoken!)

7. Other students are just…students. Just. Like. Me.  (Whether I'm in ASL classes, math, or English.)

Sometimes I allow myself to get intimidated by others and how superior their signing skills seem to be compared to my own. Yet, this year especially, I’ve been reminded that we are all just students.  They don't have all the answers and neither do I.  My classmates have their strong spots, but so do I, and I shouldn't knock myself down because I have yet to learn something.  We all start somewhere, and we each have our own journey.

8. I’m never going to stop learning. I mean, I already knew this. But as I continue in my ASL classes, headed towards my interpreting career goal, I am reminded of this almost daily…and I’m okay with this fact.

9. I can make all the life plans you want, but I need to stay flexible.

I was planning to live overseas.  I was planning to be a journalist.  I really thought that's what God was guiding me to do.  While I do feel as though I will continue to go overseas to do short-term mission trips, for now I feel like my place is right here at home in America.  God still has me around another culture, I just didn't expect Him to place me in one so close to the comfort zone of my own front door.  Maybe God will guide me overseas later on in my life…but maybe not.  Either way - I'm staying open to the idea, I'm staying flexible.

10. Step out of your comfort zone!

I'm reminded to do this when I travel.  But when you travel, you often expect to step out of your comfort zone - and doing so is practically impossible to avoid.  Learning ASL has helped me step out of my comfort zone within my own country's borders…within my own city.  Giving a presentation in front of a class, using language different from my mother tongue?  Going to events where I have yet to know anyone else who is attending, and who speaks a language that you are only just beginning to learn??  Those are only two examples (out of many) of how learning ASL has been teaching me to step out of my comfort zone - and I'm glad that learning another language reminds me to do this on a constant basis.


These are just some of the lessons I've learned throughout the last two years and I know I'm bound to learn a lot more.  

When I signed up to take my ASL 1 class, I never expected this journey.  I thought, "I'll take ASL 1 and 2 for my language requirements and that's it."  Little did I know that I'd be sticking around for a lot longer (as in a life commitment), and that taking ASL 1 would guide me through a new and extraordinary door.

Are you learning another language? What lessons have you learned through your journey??

The Travelin’ Chick,

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