Why Some Deaf People Speak And Don’t Sign

As a deaf YouTuber who mostly speaks in her videos, I often get asked by both hearing and [signing] deaf why I don?t use sign language. Sometimes, it?s just a simple question out of curiosity because someone doesn?t know anything about deaf people. Sometimes, it?s more of hate being spewed, saying one isn?t deaf [enough] because they?re not signing or that they should be signing and nothing else because they?re deaf.

When I was diagnosed with moderate to severe hearing loss at the age of eleven (and, by the way, this level of deafness has just gone higher as I?ve aged), the plan was to continue to put me through mainstream public schooling and to keep me talking like I had been since the age that kids start being able to form words.

(This, my friends, is the answer to your ?you talk really well for a deaf person!? statements.)

So I spent the rest of my elementary, middle, and high school years essentially being a ?hearing? person. A hearing head, they call it. For the record, this didn?t make things very easy for me. It made things easier for the hearing people in the same room as me.

I didn?t have access to ASL at all unless I wanted to pursue it myself. When a deaf woman went door-to-door in my neighborhood offering ASL classes, my dad said no. Being the only deaf person I knew (besides my abuser who also didn?t sign and still doesn?t), I didn?t see the point in trying to learn it. I tried for a bit here and there, but it never stuck.

It wasn?t until I was 20 that I really started getting tired of being alone, not having any real identity and the like, so I took to the Internet to learn more. Thing is though, it still took another two to three years for me to start taking learning ASL seriously. It didn?t happen until I had a movie opportunity for a deaf role and stayed with a few deaf friends for the week.

It took 23 years to be exposed to ASL.

The point of this particular half of the story is that more deaf people are mainstreamed than not (and you can thank Alexander Graham Bell and likeminded people for that). A lot of deaf people go through the same thing I went through. And some of them won?t ever have access to sign language whether that?s their choice or not. Things like money, lifestyle, location, and probably more all come into play.

So while I?ve been using ASL on and off since March 2015, I?m not fluent. My vocabulary is actually pretty small. There are moments when I learn new vocabulary and then my brain eventually ends up forgetting it, so I have to learn it again later. My grammar also tends to go more the PSE (Pidgin Signed English) route. This ruffled the feathers of some people and I?ve been told (or more like they share the videos and then rant about it away from me) that for someone who has been signing for this long, I should be a lot better than I am. Sure, I can agree with that if I was using it 24/7, which I am not. As for the grammar, well, that sounds like something they should be taking up with the people I learn from and communicate with? who are also deaf and actually grew up with the language and culture, unlike me.

So that brings me to this next point: everyone has different learning speeds. ASL is not the first language that I?ve studied. I?ve studied French, German (seeing as I?m from there), Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin. (Note: I?m not fluent in any of these or even conversational, although my Mandarin used to be pretty decent.) Some of these languages were easier than others. I learned vocabulary faster in some languages than others. Mandarin grammar was easy to me to comprehend (as it?s similar to English), but Korean, Japanese, and German were nearly impossible for my brain to grasp (and I?ve grown up with German since day one of my life, so that?s saying something).

Not everyone can learn a language as fast as others, whether they?re in a setting where that language is used frequently or not. It?s just how brains work sometimes.

Some people don?t want to use a language they?re not 100% comfortable with or fluent in in a professional setting. If they?re giving a presentation or providing some sort of work, doing it in another language isn?t the best idea. There?s risk of mistranslation, misunderstanding, forgetting to say certain things, and just overall not knowing what to say and how to say it. I know how to say what I want to say best in English, not any other language.

Setting also plays a role. When I?m with other signing deaf people, my ASL seems to be pretty alright. It has to do with the fact that I feel more comfortable and seeing other conversation happening gets my brain back into ASL mode a little more. When you?re by yourself and filming for a camera, not actually conversing with other people in real life, it?s different and can be harder. Even using English is more difficult for me when I?m filming. If I mess up using the language I?m fluent and native in, I?m definitely going to mess up in something I?m conversational in.

Of course, people are going to say that those who are dipping their toes into another language should pack up and move to the area where that language is being used, go to a specific school, etc., but the fact is that not everybody can pack up and change lifestyles for various reasons. Just because you can doesn?t mean that everyone else can.

It?s important to realize that not all deaf people are the same. We?re not a monolith. This is something that both hearing and deaf people need to remember. It might be hard to imagine that this is actually something both communities don?t realize, but it does happen. I remember someone, deaf, who was legitimately surprised when I said that there are deaf people who don?t sign, that there are more who don?t than do.

At the end of the day, use the language that is best for you. It?ll be better for everyone else in the long run.

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