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American Sign Language: "signing nursery rhymes"

An internet user writes: "When reading a book or reciting a nursery rhyme, do I sign as it is written?"


Before deciding “how” to sign something you should first decide “why” you are signing it.

For example, a classroom interpreter knows it is likely that eventually the Deaf student is going to see the concepts in written form on a test. The interpreter knows it is important to create a lot of parallels in the mind of the Deaf student between the signed concepts and the actual English words being spoken by the instructor. Thus a skilled interpreter (in a spoken English-based classroom setting) signs in such a way as to present the concepts clearly in ASL while at the same time mapping those concepts to an undercurrent of specific English words and phrases that may eventually show up on a test or in a work environment. This "mapping" tends to involve extra fingerspelling of key words, quoting specific phrases, quoting English parts of speech, using additional English signs to indicate specific affixes, and mouthing selected words (not just using mouth morphemes but actually mouthing the word). All of those techniques (in this setting) do NOT replace the ASL but rather are added to the ASL version of the message. Think of this as a process of annotation or perhaps even "writing in the margins." The interpreter is not only interpreting the instructor’s message into ASL but is also presenting many of the exact words being used by the instructor. This requires a LOT of work and mental processing on the part of both the interpreter and the client. The result though is that the client will be able to discuss the concepts in his/her native language (ASL) as well as recognize those concepts if they show up in text (on a test).

However, if you were signing (or interpreting) a theatre performance (a “play”) for which the purpose is pure enjoyment then there is (generally) no need to do such “double signing & mapping” to English. Your signing choices should be based on creating equivalent meanings without worrying about conveying the original English phraseology.

Nursery rhymes are intended (in part) to be entertaining to Hearing children by way of creating engagement via rhyme & rhythm thus allowing you to hold the attention of the child longer while presenting the information contained in the nursery rhyme.

Nursery rhymes (created by Hearing people for Hearing children) are therefore rather ineffective for use with Deaf children. Instead I challenge, dare, and encourage people to develop “nursery rhymes for Deaf children” by throwing out the old Hearing nursery rhymes and instead developing brand new “visual rhymes” using handshape similarity and movement path similarity along with adjustments to the speed, duration, and size of those movement paths, as well as facial expressions -- to enhance visual engagement. Eventually (probably around the time if and/or when I get some grandchildren) I plan on creating quite a few brand new ASL-based (and/or mime/depictive-signing-based) nursery rhymes.
- Dr. Bill

p.s. On the other hand, if your purpose for signing nursery rhymes is to get a Hearing child even MORE engaged in learning English via adding a visual component to a typical English nursery rhyme then your “why” (your reason for signing something) is different from “why” you might be signing to a Deaf child. If your purpose for signing to a Hearing child is so that he/she can learn ASL – I’d recommend “not” signing along word for word with “English” Nursery Rhymes




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