Often when teaching Fingerspelling, I repeatedly remind students, “Fingerspelling is a very active process, having very little to do with the actual letters!” The active process I’m referring to involves being 100% mindful of the topic of conversation, i.e. what are we talking about? When we know the context, then we know what to expect when the fingerspelling pops up. For example, if I’m signing about being outside in my garden and planting seeds, then suddenly fingerspell a word, you should be expecting a vegetable loan signs (from RS 4). If you aren’t paying attention to what we’re conversing about and fingerspelling pops up, you may very well freeze, clutch, ask for repetition and still not catch what’s being communicated. Meanwhile, I leave you to go tend my garden!
Spending much time in the field of communication, where my sole job is listening to everything said and then interpreting the meaning into ASL, I see many obstacles to communicating that often don’t involve language errors but rather the inability to be fully present. In ASL communication there is one behavior that shows our partners are paying attention:
- Eye contact – we spoke of eye contact in Lesson 3, and this new communication habit takes practice. When one is around Deaf communicators for any length of time, it’s noticed the difference between hearing and Deaf culture. Hearing culture tends towards multi-tasking while Deaf culture necessitates eye contact for communication and visual attunement. Multi-tasking is tough to do if we use our eyes for only one thing—the person in front of us. As an aside, many Deaf friends over the years have joked about the “hearies” habit of being distracted by sounds and looking around continuously. In a Deaf experience, distracting sounds are often nonexistent and so, it’s far easier to visually attune without anything else competing for attention.
I realize I’m on a bit of a soap box here but in this age of multi-tasking, technology-pulling culture, it can be very unusual to keep our minds focused on one thing and one thing only—the conversation at hand. Mindfulness plays an enormous role in successfully utilizing context to understand the fingerspelling of my partner. Full, one hundred percent awareness of the other is a huge ingredient for success.