by Ami Clayton
An essay about my missteps in learning American Sign Language.
|Miss Malaprop Takes Her Bow
Languages, I believe, were invented for two purposes: communication and the amusement of native speakers. I make a very earnest attempt not to become one of the aforementioned sources of humor. I can proudly state that in my three years of study, I have never once mistakenly requested of a French-speaker, “Please pass the bath.” I have also somehow managed never to confuse pregnancy and embarrassment in Spanish, a mistake so common among Anglophones that it is nearly a rite of passage. I have come to understand, however, that blunders are as much an essential to language as are grammar and syntax.
I consider myself a proficient speaker of the English language. This is not to say that my lofty and mildly egotistical viewpoint has stopped me from making comments regarding Jesus’s crucifixion at “cavalry” or the “erotic” flight pattern of the hummingbird. I couldn’t understand my history teacher’s snickering as I gave my oral report about the ancient “penile” colony at Corsica, nor could I grasp my theology instructor’s audible sigh as she read my list of the tenets of Catholicism and discovered God was “impotent.”
Probably, though, there is no testament to my confusion greater than my shining moments in my attempt to learn American Sign Language. May it first be stated that it is completely unreasonable that curse words should so often differ by a mere two fingers from legitimate ones. Suffice it to say that I have been subject to more than one silent rant while operating on the belief that all I had said was “Want a napkin?”
My friend Tabia and I once took a sign language class together. Noticing how easily we got along, the deaf friend of our instructor inquired, “Did you know each other before this class?” To this, I proudly responded in sign, “Yes. We met at school.”
Tabia’s snickering confused me, and I said aloud to her, “What’s so funny?”
Our instructor’s friend could apparently read lips, which was a lucky break for me. It is considered very rude to speak aloud in front of a Deaf person if the speaker knows how to sign, and it is comparable to whispering when among hearing company. “S-C-H-O-O-L,” she spelled out, “is this sign.” She clapped her hands together twice and explained further, “Think of a teacher clapping to get the attention of the class.” I realized then that I had actually told her, “We met at cheese.”
In high school, I had the good fortune to meet and befriend Laura, a girl who was two years my senior, Deaf, and unflinchingly patient. She put up with statements like “Practice starts in chicken minutes,” and “Turn left at the fish.” One particular incident will forever stick in my mind. She and I, both members of the properties crew, were seated side-stage at rehearsal for our school’s production of South Pacific. We were conversing in a flutter of fingers, as we usually did to pass the endless hours of Mrs. Miller screeching, “We’re going to keep doing this scene until you get it right!”
“Will you marry me?” she signed.
“What?” I replied, shocked.
“Will you marry me?” she repeated patiently.
“I don’t understand,” I signed in confusion.
“I’m going to McDonald’s,” she clarified.
I blushed brightly as I finally understood. The sentence was not a marriage proposal, but rather the question, “Do you want a hamburger?”
“No,” I signed. “I think I’ll just get some chips out of the snack machine.”
It was a few weeks after that that our crew chief called a props crew meeting. Knowing my history of tardiness, Laura scolded, “Don’t you be late!”
“I won’t,” I promised. “I’ll be naked.”
Ami Clayton, 2004