Saturday, May 1, 2010

Learning New Words, Or Right, that would be the same

I got off the plane from Spain (there's a song there) and walked pretty much straight into a Learning Tree classroom to teach the .NET scalable applications course. Early in the morning of the first day, while I'm waiting for the class participants to show up, a woman walks in and says "Hi, I'm Elaine, Shawn's interpreter." I blinked benignly. "Shawn?", I ask politely.

It turns out that a guy named Shawn, who happens to be deaf, is attending the class and has two ASL interpreters coming along to translate. It takes two because--with the amount of talking that I do--the interpreters need to spell each other off. I could see it now: Elaine drops to the floor yelling to her partner "Aaaargh, my index finger! It's gone! Cover me!"

So Elaine and I worked out where she and the other interpreter (Rhonda) would sit, what seat would be optimal for them to work with Shawn, and so on. The class participants (including Shawn) showed up eventually, we all chatted, and started the class at 9:00.

By lunch, however. Learning Tree, being Learning Tree, had gone into overdrive to figure out the BEST possible arrangement to support the customer (at one point, the facilities staff were prepped to clear out half of the tables in the classroom in order to rearrange the whole room to optimize the sight lines for Shawn and the interpreters). In the end, we stuck with what Elaine and Rhonda had worked out in the morning. Shawn was a gent through all of this because (I imagine) these discussions are always awkward. He wants to be perceived as "Shawn," not as "the deaf guy," but he also needs to get his needs met or the four days are going to be a complete waste.

By noon on the first day, I had assumed that Sean was non-vocal and was only communicating with him through Elaine and Rhonda. But, on the third day of the course, when passing him in the hallway and waving "Hi" (as I usually do when I spot a participant in the hall--allows me to show that I recognize them without revealing that I don't know their actual name), Shawn spoke to me. Shawn grasped the opportunity to show me how to say "Good afternoon" in ASL and we both went on our way.

Now, when I teach in a non-English speaking country, I always have the participants teach me the "courtesy words" in their language. I got this from my brother who, when traveling in Europe, always learned how to say "Please", "Thank-you", "Excuse me", and "Which way to the public washrooms, quickly, please?" in the local language. So, on the morning of the fourth (and last) day of class, I asked Shawn to show me how to say "Good morning".

Shawn did and also gave me a quick history of the etymology of the phrases.  It turns out that if you hold out one arm and move your hand over it (like the sun "going over the day" was the way Shawn put it.), you mean "afternoon". Moving your hand below your arm is, therefore, "morning." Over time, however, these have been shortened down so that the "morning" in "Good morning" is the just back of one hand against the palm of the other hand; similarly, the "morning" in "Good morning" is just the palm of one hand placed against your underarm. This is great because it hadn't occurred to me that, like other languages, ASL would change over time--it just reinforces my belief that people who want to keep a language "pure" are engaged in a hopeless quest.

By this time, I'm on a language roll. And, while I usually restrict myself to learning only one new word a day, I'd thrown away the first two days and I figured I could handle a third word in ASL in just two days without going into linguistic overload. So, at the end of the day, when Shawn is leaving, I grasp my opportunity. I ask Shawn, "So, what's the ASL for 'Goodbye' or 'Until next time'?".

Shawn looks at me a little oddly for a second. Then he lifts up his left hand, and waves "bye-bye". Right.

Of course.


Reading or read

No comments: