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ASL:  The myth of: "It's not speed but clarity that matters."


Often beginning-level signers like to console each other by spreading the myth that "fast fingerspelling isn't important -- it's clear fingerspelling that matters."

Sometimes even well-meaning ASL instructors spread this myth.

It is bad advice.

At best it is a lie mixed with a truth.

Those of you who have not yet put in the hundreds of hours necessary yet to become proficient fingerspellers -- do not let someone tell you that "It better to be slow and clear than fast and sloppy" or that "It's okay to be slow -- as long as you are clear."

No -- actually it isn't. 

It's okay to be slow -- if you are a beginner who is just starting out.
It's okay to be slow if you have a physical or mental reason.

It however is not okay to be slow month after month and use "Well, what's important is clarity not speed" as your excuse for not having put in the effort to be able to spell quickly.

I'll tell you what is important. 

What is important is skillfully recognizing when there is enough context to forego clarity for speed and then to whip out a fingerspelled word at a speed that matches your audience given the environment, the context, and the familiarity of your audience with the word or concept you are spelling.

There is also a "speed : success / fail" ratio that is subtle yet real. By that I mean we Deaf people fail to understand a huge amount of spelling very often -- but we don't notice the failure because we simply ask our conversation partner to spell it again, we catch it, and we move on without having triggered any sort of self castigation (the word castigation means to reprimand, criticize, or chastise severely) because the number of requested repeats is within our "speed : success/fail ratio."

Compare the skilled fingerspelling of Deaf people to the ball handling of professional basketball players.

When you think of a "pro" basketball player your general first thought is that they are "really, really, good at shooting baskets."


The reality professional basketball players tend to miss more baskets than they throw.

(Pro basketball players hit only about 46 out of every 100 shots.  Source: basketball-reference(dot)com).

That's right!  Pro basketball players *miss* (or in other words: "temporarily fail") more than they succeed.

Yet they by and large do not stop and beat themselves up every time they mess up.  They don't pause the action, slap their own hand, sigh, and make a big deal out of it when the game play is sill going on.  (Oh sure, they do have emotional reactions but if the ball is still "in play" you can bet the pros get on with the action because millions of dollars are riding on it).  The audience doesn't want to sit there watching a player self-criticize.  The audience wants the player to get on with the game!  Sure, there is a time at the free-throw line that it is important to take some time and "do it carefully" -- but not during the regular play on the court.

It is the same in the Deaf world.  There are times when you should slow down.

It's okay to be slow if you are introducing a new, strange, or complex word to a conversation.  It's okay to spell slower if it is a dark or your conversation partner can't see well or is far away.  It is okay to spell slow if you are spelling something important like a password.

Fingerspelling is a lot like driving.  There are times to do it slow but if you drive slow on the freeway you are going to annoy a lot of people and the other drivers will "go around you."

So, the reality is:

Clarity is sometimes very important -- but not always and can often be a drag on conversation flow.

Speed is typically important because "lack of speed" or the "inability to fingerspell fast" is almost always a drag on conversation flow.

Look, if you don't want to put in the couple hundred hours of practice to become a good fingerspeller -- that is your business -- but don't complain about how unfriendly the Deaf community is because nobody wants to chat with you and we "go around you" (and chat with someone else who "can" keep up).   It isn't our job to watch you spell slow. For that -- hire and pay a (Deaf) tutor or pay tuition and take a class.

It isn't because we are unfriendly.  It's because we don't want to stand there and watch you take a relative eternity to spell words that should be spelled in one second. 

If you have a legit excuse for spelling slow -- fine (we all have issues) -- but don't comfort yourself with the myth that "speed isn't important."




Differences in "life experiences" impact the usefulness of teaching metaphors and analogies.

Providing examples and memory aids to students is only useful if the students can actually relate to and/or understand the example.

The "curse of knowledge" in instruction is when an instructor knows something and assumes that the students know it too (yet the students do not). This difference in knowledge curses the instruction by wasting the student's time on an example or memory aid from which the student can't actually benefit.

For example:

Around the 18:13 minute mark of my Lesson 01 video with my assistant "Jen" I provide a memory aid to help her learn the sign "WHERE." I ask Jen to imagine a map and the act of moving her finger around on the map to see "where" she is. (This movement looks somewhat as if you are doing the sign WHERE.)

Later I reflected on the fact that it is quite possible (even probable) that Jen has never touched a paper-based map.

In her life-experience maps have "always" been online.

My point here is simply that just because something seems "obvious" to you due to your life experiences -- the same thing may not be obvious to someone else.


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