American Sign Language

American Sign Language

One of the common topics of discussion by preppers is communications. We want to be able to find out what's going on around us, so we can figure out how to react. Long-range comms are nice, and we've had a few articles about radio and such over the years, but a one-on-one exchange of information can be more important and time-sensitive. There are a few problems, though:

  • Some of us are dealing with mask mandates due to the reactions of various governments and corporate “leaders” to COVID-19. Masks of any sort muffle the voice and make communications harder. For those who are hard of hearing or deaf that rely on reading lips to help understand what is being said, masks hide half of the face and make it impossible to see a person's mouth.
  • I wear an N95 mask at work when dealing with certain chemicals and levels of dust that are unsafe to breathe, so I know how they hinder clear speech. Add in the various machines that make enough noise to require hearing protection, and speech becomes a poor method of communicating. Since most of us older workers didn't have hearing protection available decades ago, many of us have some hearing loss and that makes it even harder.
  • English has many dialects and some people have a hard time making sense of those who speak a different dialect. I'm a Midwesterner, and while we have a fairly flat dialect without the changes in pitch common in several others, I've run into a lot of local people who have a hard time understanding Southern, British, or Creole/Cajun speakers.

There is a handy (pun intended) method of getting around these obstacles to clear communication: Sign Language.

American Sign Language (ASL) is a manual language that uses hand gestures and to a lesser degree facial expressions to communicate. Developed about 200 years ago as a way to teach the deaf and mute, ASL is a fully-formed language of its own with idioms, grammar, dialects, and unique contractions. ASL grew from native signs adopted by deaf people and a system developed in France to teach deaf and mute children. Up until the late 1600s, it was assumed that the lack of hearing meant a person was unteachable, and they were consigned to asylums or raised as imbeciles. By the 1800s, schools for the deaf started popping up around the US.

I grew up within view of a state school for the deaf that teaches children from 18 months to 18 years of age, so I learned a bit of ASL as a child. One of my school-mates had deaf parents, so he had to translate for me and I picked up the basic alphabet from him (along with all of the Helen Keller jokes). I've been teaching some of the guys at work (sorry, no women at the moment) some basic signs for when we're in places that don't allow for speech. Trying to yell over the noise and through the ear plugs gets tiring; it's just easier to sign the simple things.

It has recently become popular to teach infants some of the basic signs to give them a way to communicate with their parents before their verbal skills develop. My nephews could sign the basics like food, water, yes/no, and various toys long before they could speak. Kids are smarter than most of us think.

For preppers, there may be times where having a different method of talking to each other will be useful: not waking the off-shift crew, subtle hints during negotiations, and having a relatively uncommon language to hold private conversations in all come to mind.

There are lots of resources available for learning ASL, so start with the basics and keep learning. Here's the basic alphabet.

Amazon and your local bookstore have dozens of manuals and teaching aids, YouTube has hundreds of short instructional videos for common words and phrases, and Gallaudet University -- the first deaf college in the US, founded by the son of the man who got ASL rolling -- offers a free online course for learning ASL.

I've lost a lot of my foreign language skills due to lack of practice. All skills deteriorate without practice, so find someone to talk to once in a while to keep things fresh. You might even learn a few new “words” now and then.

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