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A teacher writes:
Dear Dr. Bill,
I've noticed that certain supposedly "ASL" websites have been put together by Hearing people who quite often show signs differently from my Deaf friends. Should I tell my students to avoid those sites?
- [Name on file]
Dear [Name on file],
Suppose a person lives in Texas and suppose Texans overwhelmingly use a particular variation of a sign that isn't used as much outside of Texas. Thus we have a "regional variation." Is it better for a student living in Texas to learn the variation that is much more widely used nationally than to learn the local variation? Of course the tempting answer is "learn them both!" But that wasn't the question. Which is better for a student to learn? While circumstances may influence any individual's experience in the Deaf Community it seems that students generally get along better when they sign in a manner similar to that of the person sitting across the table (rather than using the arguably more widespread versions taught by that bald dude).
I think ________ and ________ (certain websites) have become (to some extent) the tail that wags the dog. Thousands of people log on and learn signs from those sites and then spread those signs. Once a sign has spread and is in use it is (arguably) a "real" sign since (due to rather circular logic) it has spread and is in use. More specifically some "signs" have graduated from "mistake" -- to protologism -- to neologism -- to regional variation -- to "accepted version of the sign." A "sign" may not be a classic sign -- not rooted in history or culture -- but if enough people use a sign that sign might eventually become the "preferred" sign.
I don't think we need to tell students to stop using any particular study resource. I do think though that students should be encouraged and then reminded to seek out a variety of skilled language models who have frequent interactions in the local Deaf community.
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