In what language do deaf people think?

Someone typed “do Deaf people learn ASL faster?” in the google search and my post came out on the first page. Thought I’d repost this for to pick it up.

I’m assuming that the person who typed that search wanted to know if Deaf people actually learn ASL faster than hearing people.

In some ways, yeah, I do think that deaf people learn the language faster since they rely only on their eyes to learn. However, they need to be in a place where ASL is the predominant language where everyone is signing so it gives off a strong stimulation. Gallaudet University is a very good example of this. I know a few hearing students whose ASL fluency was ok, not great till they go into Gallaudet University and a year later, I see them again and their ASL “sky-rocket”, almost as good as next deaf person.

Personally, it would be so cool if deaf schools or any schools require teachers to have at least two years of internship or enrollment at Gallaudet University as part of the qualifications to apply for a teacher position. This ensures that teachers will be fluent in ASL and in turn, kids would benefit from their ASL competency.

I remember when I came to the United States for the first time when I was adopted. I landed in the O’Hare airport and my deaf parents were anxiously waiting to hug their first and only child. Of course, I was clueless as to why they were excited with big smiles and tears in their eyes. I was bewildered why they were acting like that and for looking directly at me. Like why were they waving hands at me, not others? as I had no idea who they were? No one “told” me that I was going to meet my parents, way out of my home country.

So they squeezed me hard after our distance finally closed and gave me a snoopy doll. I was still puzzled by all of this till my dad started signing to my mom. Pow! I don’t know how to describe it but it was like a light turned on in the dark room and you could see everything. I was only three years old and knew nothing about ASL but I felt like I can understand what my dad was signing. Maybe it’s not so about him using ASL but the fact he didn’t use his mouth and used his hands instead. Maybe it told me that he was deaf….like me. All the nervousness and apprehension I had went away after leaving my orphanage for the first time, getting on the plane for the first time, and meeting two complete strangers for the first time. Our deafness and ASL made all of those feelings disappeared. We made a connection. We didn’t need to share same blood.

On the way home from the airport, which was about four hours drive, my mom brought a children’s book and she was ready to teach me signs right there in the car. My first education happened in a car! We were sitting in the backseat, with my dad on my left and my mom on the right. My uncle was doing the driving. My parents showed me how to sign those pictures in the book like animals, trees, etc. My mom said by the time we got home, we had finished the whole book and I’d learn all the signs from the book. After one week, I had learned enough signs that we were signing normally as if we were together since I was born. One week was all it took from being complete strangers to a happy family.

Imagine if my parents tried to teach me how to speak or learn oralism? I couldn’t imagine.


Saw this on the Digg website. I like the article so much that I have to post here.

In what language do deaf people think?

Dear Cecil:

In what language do deaf people think? I think in English, because that’s what I speak. But since deaf people cannot hear, they can’t learn how to speak a language. Nevertheless, they must think in some language. Would they think in English if they use sign language and read English? How would they do that if they’ve never heard the words they are signing or reading pronounced? Or maybe they just see words in their head, instead of hearing themselves? –Cathy, Malvern, Pennsylvania

I’m not going to post the entire article but to highlight some paragraphs.

The profoundly, prelingually deaf can and do acquire language; it’s just gestural rather than verbal. The sign language most commonly used in the U.S. is American Sign Language, sometimes called Ameslan or just Sign. Those not conversant in Sign may suppose that it’s an invented form of communication like Esperanto or Morse code. It’s not. It’s an independent natural language, evolved by ordinary people and transmitted culturally from one generation to the next. It bears no relationship to English and in some ways is more similar to Chinese–a single highly inflected gesture can convey an entire word or phrase.

Wow, who would have thought that our ASL is more similar to Chinese than English!

Sign equips native users with the ability to manipulate symbols, grasp abstractions, and actively acquire and process knowledge–in short, to think, in the full human sense of the term. Nonetheless, “oralists” have long insisted that the best way to educate the deaf is to teach them spoken language, sometimes going so far as to suppress signing. Sacks and many deaf folk think this has been a disaster for deaf people.

The answer to your question is now obvious. In what language do the profoundly deaf think? Why, in Sign (or the local equivalent), assuming they were fortunate enough to have learned it in infancy. The hearing can have only a general idea what this is like–the gulf between spoken and visual language is far greater than that between, say, English and Russian.

Yet hearing students keep thinking it’s easier to learn ASL than Russian in their high school foreign language requirement. Just because ASL doesn’t have a written form doesn’t mean it’s easy to learn ASL!

I remember one time when I was working for the Nestle Beverage Company in Jacksonville, IL after my senior year in high school. I had two managers and they wanted to learn ASL. One manager was the head of the factory and with his job, he would travel to many countries to do business and meetings, so he knew quite some languages, so he thought it should be easy to learn ASL, being that it’s right on the tip of our fingers instead of our tongue. The other manager was a short friendly guy from Texas with a great sense of humor. He was responsible for internal operations and didn’t travel elsewhere as much as the other manager did. So, suffice to say that he didn’t know another language but English.

Everyday during lunch or office breaks, I’d say hi to both managers and try to strike up a conversation to help teach them some ASL. Ofc, first with ASL fingerspelling, then gradually moving on to learn different signs and build up a vocabulary base. Toward the end of my internship, which manager ends up learning the most? It was the Texan. And the other manager? he was still struggling with sign alphabets. The Texan learned so much that we were able to converse smoothly with a minimal stoppage for interpretations (which sign is that? that kind of question). His sense of humor probably helped as much, for we would always make jokes and laugh.

I learned from this experience as much as they learned ASL and it leads me to believe that people who rely on audio so much—I think that’s called an audiophile?—-that they’re unable to grasp the concept of the language being visual instead of audible. Like the article above, the gulf between ASL and English is greater than English and Russian.

6 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Janis

    Hrmmmmm … I’m not sure even hearing people “think” in English ir a spoken language. I mean, I use english in my head sometimes, like when I’m writing. But … if I think of how I make homemade pasta sauce, I’m not thinking in WORDS. I’m just visualizing it, or conceptualizing it. We use words to think, but we use LOTS of tools to conceptualize things, not just words.

    Oddly, I’ve been practicing my fingerspelling lately and working more on my ASL because I’ve just wanted to get back into it again, and I had an odd experience while using an animated test website. I can’t verbalize it well, but while using the “fast” setting, I felt some sort of ineffable mental shift in how I was “feeling” or “seeing” the words, or something. I simply can’t describe it. And it didn’t last; I’d need immersion for that to happen.

    But I did feel something shift in my head, something that I can’t explain, about how I visualized the words. I think it was similar to how using a qwerty keyboard shapes the mental space and shape that a word has in your head when you use it. While watching those animated tests, I felt something in my head change shape as to how I was thinking of the words and the letters.

    Very interesting topic …

  2. CyanSquirrel

    I’m late deafened and I think in audible english, if that makes sense. I hear the words in my head as if some voice is saying them.

    I sign fluently but can’t say I ever think in ASL/conceptual terms. However, I can communicate in that language effortlessly. I guess I’m just weird :-)

  3. Interested Third Party

    I’m hearing and started learning ASL in college, after studying another foreign language a bit. I never thought ASL would be “easier” than learning another language, but I thought it might be more suited to me. I couldn’t really get my tongue around other languages very well, but I knew I was pretty adept with my hands.

    Turns out I must have made the right choice, because several years later, I’m a teacher at a school for the deaf.

    I remember wondering the same thing a long while back, about whether deaf native-signers “see signing” in their head the way I “hear my voice” in my head when I’m thinking. I didn’t have any problem accepting that fact — I just thought it was cool how people’s brains could work in such different ways.

    But now that I think about it some more, I wonder “how” I’m thinking when I interact with my students, because I don’t have time to be thinking in “spoken English” before the ASL comes out of my hands to respond to them. I’m going to have to analyze myself a little more closely now, because it’s making me curious.

    (My grad school professor *did* try to persuade me to become a linguist, after all) :D

  4. I like the concept you brought up about having future teachers for the deaf to be immersed in ASL environment where they are able to be readily fluent when teaching deaf children. That is a huge problem today that they graduate with deaf ed degree without really having this criteria to achieve the required level of sign language assessment (SCPI for example).

    Deaf individuals pick up ASL faster especially when they are interacting with peers using the language just like English speaking people picking up French faster if they reside in France. Deaf people depend on visual cues which makes sense for them to acquire language more effectively than hearing people. Thanks for sharing your childhood experience when being exposed with ASL for the first time. That’s pretty touching.

  5. Thanks for posting this article! I’ve been wondering about this since I started learning sign language with my daughter. Interestingly, when I had surgery, I could communicate with signs while drugged up, but they couldn’t understand my words….

  1. How Deaf People Think - Jul 20th, 2010

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