Life at Gallaudet

It’s been a long and rigorous, but wonderful week. I am taking two classes, so my classes go from 9-5pm, with a 10 minute morning break, 50 minute lunch break, and 30 minutes between my first and 2nd class. Following a long day of classes, I typically take a long 2-3 hour dinner break with friends, and then return to my dorm to do homework.

Like me (before I got here), you may be wondering what kind of homework an ASL class would have. We don’t memorize declensions and conjugations, but record videos of ourselves signing various narratives to practice the grammar and new vocabulary we learned that day. This is much harder than it sounds. I do several retakes when I make mistakes because the videos cannot be edited.

Some days, the homework requires us to communicate information real life situations—giving of instructions or directions, making plans with a friend, retelling what happened during the day, or describing a place. On other days, we retell fictional stories.

I enjoy retelling fictional stories the most. They seem to display the beauty and ingenuity of ASL in a wonderfully delightful way. A good story teller is much like an actor who is able to play three or four different roles at the same time by transitioning from one character to another without confusing the audience. What might this look like? Well, if a story teller is describing an interaction between two characters, for instance, he would index the two people in space – left and right, or even up and down for a tall and short person. Then, he would look towards the left to address one character and vice versa. Such is the art of role shifting. Role shifts are not only used in fictional stories. It is used when one is communicating any situation that involves more than one person and is thus, an important grammatical tool. I have not been able to do this intuitively yet, but hopefully, I will be able to before I leave Gallaudet!

There is a strict “no voice” policy in class, and even during breaks. If one is caught using his or her voice without any signs, the teacher could ask the student to leave the class. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, this is so we are able to use ASL as often as possible and become more fluent. Secondly, it is rude in Deaf Culture to be using one’s voice without signing within a Deaf Space, if one knows ASL. Deaf Space is defined as any space inhabited by a Deaf person (even though the term has also come to be used to denote architecture that are specially designed for the Deaf). My teacher is Deaf, so using our voices would be akin to talking behind her back. If everyone in the classroom is hearing an using our voices, it would be polite to start signing as soon as she walks in, even if we are not directly conversing with her.

It has definitely a challenge to communicate in ASL all the time, but everyone I’ve met on campus has been extremely patient with me, even the ladies who work at the cafeteria. If I don’t know a sign for something, I fingerspell the word and ask someone what the sign for the word is.

It’s also been great to meet people from all walks of life who are learning ASL for so many different reasons. Among my new friends are a seminarian and priest who are preparing to enter Deaf ministry, a couple of aspiring interpreters, a teacher, an audiologist, a student pursuing a Ph.D. in linguistics, a mom with a daughter who became deaf due to a severe illness, and a Deaf teacher from Nepal who teaches at a Deaf school. I also met a Deaf student who’s observing my class as part of her coursework for her Masters degree in education — she hopes to be an ASL teacher. I’m looking forward to getting to know all these interesting people more in the coming weeks.



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