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American Sign Language: "dear"

A future teacher writes:

Dear Dr. Vicars,
I am trying to learn ASL basics since I will be in a Elementary general classroom and with inclusion, children of every kind are now welcome in the general classroom regardless of their disability and I want to try to prepare for the day when I have a hearing impaired student.

The issue has become personal recently as the 4 year old daughter of a friend of mine has gotten to the point in her hearing loss where it was recommended she start learning ASL. I realized then the importance of knowing at least the basic ASL for my future students because of her and her mother's struggle with her pre-school teacher, so I began learning how to fingerspell. I envy your dexterity because my hands really cramp up after an hour of practice! Anyway, I ran into a pickle today. We are learning about different common lessons in the elementary classroom when writing a professional letter (like this one) came up. I went to your site and to google to try to find out how to sign common greetings and closings. I was very surprised to find that I couldn't find a thing! Are there ways to sign things like this [(Dear Dr. Vicars, ), (To whom it may concern, ), (Sincerely, ), and (With deepest sympathy, )] or do none exist?

I ask this because lessons in writing professional letters actually start before the children have much experience with spelling (it is a class activity that starts in Kindergarten). I assume it would be just as hard on a small child to decipher a big new word I finger spelled to them as it would be for any child deciphering a big written word at that age. If my assumption is incorrect, please let me know.

- Jamie Allen

Dear Jamie,
Since written forms of ASL are not widely used within the Deaf community, the typical forms of "address" you might see in written English communication are not common in American Sign Language.

Let's consider the word "dear" in the phrase, "Dear Mr. Smith."

In general, the sign LOVE (arms crossed over chest) or the sign PRECIOUS (claw hand changes to "S" hand) are the two closest concepts to "dear." There is also a sign that means "I love love it" which is known as "KISS-FIST" wherein a person kisses the back of their fist.

But really none of those concepts matches the English concept of "Dear John Smith." Realistically "dear" at the beginning of a letter or email doesn't mean the person is "dear" to you but rather it means you are being cordial and showing a bit of politeness and/or respect. Thus in an effort to bridge a non-bilingual ASL child over to become a bilingual ASL/English fluent child you will need to use signs such as "IT MEANING RESPECT [body-shift "OR"] POLITE.

Let me turn this around a bit. When two individuals pass by each other in the hall or on the street they sometimes nod their head toward the other person. What does that nod mean? How would you write it? If I were to ask you to give me a one-word English equivalent to the "head nod while passing on the street" gesture it would be rather challenging. I suppose we could try to say that the "nod" means "hello" but that would be superficial. it obviously means more than.

The "nod" when done while passing is a gestural form of "addressing" the other person -- a way to show that you acknowledge their existence. It conveys the concept that I respect you enough to nod my head a bit. It is quite possible that the "nod" is descendant from an actual "bow" which obviously means more than just "hello."

Some concepts are so culturally laden with meaning that they will not translate easily into some other culture's "nearest" words. The word "Dear" in the title of address isn't just a "word" it is part of a phrase. The moment you try to break the word "Dear" apart from its phrase you've already ruined your best hope for finding an equivalent translation in another language. The phrase "Dear Mr. Smith," over time has changed to mean something quite different from the English words "Mr. Smith is dear to me."

Thus I suggest that a way to teach the meaning of "Dear Mr. Smith" to culturally Deaf ASL-speaking is to show them an overhead picture of a piece of correspondence, "START MAIL PROPER HOW-(rhetorical)? QUOTE D-E-A-R M-R S-M-I-T-H COMMA QUOTE." Or even "SUPPOSE YOU WANT WRITE / TYPE MAIL or EMAIL SOMEONE. START HOW? FIRST SENTENCE TEND-to WHAT-DO? I OFFER GOOD WAY YOU WRITE D-E-A-R M-R S-M-I-T-H COMMA.

Such explanations can help bridge the gap when you are instructing Deaf native ASL users who are the children of Deaf parents who use ASL. If your students don't "really" know ASL and simply know a bit of home-signing or Signed English that their Hearing parents use at home then the discussion regarding how to sign "Dear Mr. Smith" is a moot one and your best use of time isn't worrying about how to sign it in ASL.

Instead you should focus on developing a learning process whereby you are able to communicate such concepts to your Deaf and hard of hearing students visually through the use of actual examples, pictures, pieces of correspondence.

Learning a few hundred signs online is a "good start" but it doesn't replace the thousands of hours of training and practice necessary to become fluent enough in ASL to effectively explain "deep" concepts. If your students' residual hearing is not sufficient to enable effective communication via speech (even with amplification) then I encourage you to make sure they receive skilled signing provided by either a certified interpreter and/or a certified Teacher of the Deaf.

And even if becoming a terp or an instructor of the Deaf is not be your thing, I am still very glad to see you making an effort to brighten the lives of your future students.
Best wishes for your progress and success.
Dr. Bill


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