I’ve been learning a new language lately: American Sign Language aka ASL. Along with the language, I’ve picked up lots of new friends as part of a thriving culture. A big part of learning is through mistakes, and a big part of said culture is helpful bluntness. The combination of these can be a little rough on your ego sometimes.

Sometimes I notice that, when I’m corrected–say I make a sign incorrectly and my conversational partner demonstrates the correct way to do it–I often can’t tell any difference between what I was supposed to do and what my hands actually did. This kind of fundamental error in cognition seems to happen all the time with me. My helpful friends tell me that’s a good sign. (no pun intended)

A less-bruising kind of error is the “oops” kind–the instant you commit the error, you know you messed up. This, however, can sometimes throw you off if you get self-conscious about it. A third kind of error is when you know exactly what to do, but your physiology holds you back–for instance the ASL sign for either ‘6’ or ‘W’ (made the way most hearing people show a ‘3’ on their fingers; thumb holding down the pinky) is difficult for me to make without slowing way down. And to think, only 13 years ago I was playing keyboards in a little garage band. Guess I need some stretches. It’s good to loosen up.

In ASL, though, there’s a weird kind of middle ground. Sometimes people who don’t know Spanish kind of ‘fake it’ — “Yo no speako español” and the like, which has always come across to me as vaguely offensive. Being overly terrified of making a mistake is itself a fourth kind of mistake. ASL is remarkably flexible; even though it’s a complete language, it has aspects based on pantomime and sometimes “classifiers”, where your hands and fingers can stand in for people, vehicles, or many other things of particular shapes/sizes. I watch some very well-made ASL productions that have equally well-made English paragraphs alongside, and the ASL version uses all of these techniques and more. No word-for-word correspondence here: every time, I’m surprised by the versitility of the language. My theory is that for an earnest student, it’d be a lot harder to accidentally come across as offensive or mocking the language in ASL compared to other spoken languages. And thus, I’m probably committing the fourth kind of error too much.

It’s good to loosen up. -m

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