An Opinion of an ASL student of John Egbert’s presentation given at a Deaf Culture class.

Chelsea Hxxxxxx

Speaker Reaction Paper – John Egbert

ASL 3705


My first impression of John was that it seemed odd to have him speaking when there were interpreters present. From my experience, most Deaf people don’t enjoy speaking, mostly it seems, because they are just more comfortable signing…their native language. John, however, made an interesting point, when you have an interpreter relay your message for you, it’s not entirely your message. Like with any language, when things are interpreted some parts of the message are lost in translation. It’s kind of like a game of telephone, by the time the message reaches its final destination it’s changed a lot. The next thing that struck me as odd about John was that he had an accent. It sounded southern. When he explained that he went to school in New Orleans and is from (and later moved back to) Mississippi…it made some sense. The most interesting part of his accent, however, was that I still couldn’t understand how he developed an accent if he has the amount of hearing loss that he says he does. I understand that at oralist schools, people are often taught how to form words, even if they can’t hear them produced, but the fact that he has an accent was still very intriguing to me.

It was fun listening to all of the stories of mischief he got into when younger. Listening to the stories, in many ways it sounded like most young boys supposedly act, but when John pointed out that most Deaf children from hearing families don’t have the childhood he had it put a new perspective on things for me. I suppose that most Deaf children from hearing families…especially ones without access to sign language or to other people who sign, may have difficulty forming friendships with hearing children. John had his brother who is also Deaf. Especially when surrounded by hearing people, I can imagine the type of tight bond that they must have formed. Overall, his stories from his childhood were funny to listen to. He seemed like a very adventurous child.

When John talked about school, it brought to mind feelings I’ve felt everytime I’ve read a book about Deaf history or heard a lecture in class. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to be Deaf and attend an oralist school. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to have a person make you speak when you can’t hear your own voice, except for vibrations in your head when you produce sound. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to want to explain yourself, but the people you’re talking to can’t understand you and refuse to learn a language in which they could communicate with you. I get frustrated even now trying to imagine what it would be like going to school and really only learning by reading books and essentially teaching yourself, as John said he had to. Even now, I’ll sit in classes and some of the material will not make sense to me…but then sometimes neither will the textbook(s). I at least have the option to discuss it with my teacher. Not having this option, especially as a child, would be really hard for me.

Sometimes, even after four semesters of ASL, I have difficulty telling ASL and signed English apart. This is likely because English is my native language and is what comes most naturally to me. John had a nice way of explaining that signed English is like being a “reading signer.” You’re essentially “reading” the message being signed or “writing” the message in the air to someone else. You’re not fully partaking in the language of ASL. He also said that in spoken language you not only have the words, but the tone to carry your message. Just as there are many meanings for a single word in English, there are many meanings for a single sign in ASL, but in ASL you don’t have spoken tone to portray your message. Instead, you have facial expressions (also present in spoken English) and you feel the message. John told us that in order to fully learn the language of ASL, you have to have a desire to. You can’t simply learn it by watching and doing…you have to want it. Without that desire you’ll never fully express yourself in a way that true ASL requires you to. It’s an expressive language.

My fingerspelling has always left something to be desired. One thing I really took away from John’s presentation and something I hope to put into practice more in the future is that we shouldn’t sign each letter, but try to fingerspell the whole word. John’s brother told him to stick with the signing Deaf people when he got to Gallaudet, because that’s how he would truly learn the language. In a similar way that’s how our ASL courses here at the University work…through immersion. However, without practice my ASL won’t develop. Taking his tips for fingerspelling and a desire to learn and immerse myself in the language, I can only hope my ASL improves. He is proof, like many other only-oralist taught people of his generation are, ASL is not something that can only be learned in childhood. Even though I’m an adult, I could truly become proficient in the language, if I want it enough.

John also used many analogies throughout his presentation that gave an interesting animation to what he was describing. One of my favorite ones was when he compared the hearing level of Deaf people with hearing aids to a black and white TV with static and hearing people with what is considered normal hearing levels as an HDTV. You can still perceive things, but the clarity is not the same. He also explained why some Deaf people don’t like to ask for clarification when speaking with a hearing person who doesn’t sign. He said when you ask someone for clarification too many times they become upset. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but this makes complete sense. I’ve had experiences like this many times before and I have hearing in a normal conversational range. Eventually you just nod and smile and hope that looks like you understood.

Finally, it was interesting to actually meet the man who wrote a book I read. I enjoyed reading MindField and further enjoyed learning the reason behind the book. Sometimes when you learn about an author, it can take away from the book. For example, a few years ago I found out that my favorite travel book was written more of a work of fiction than the work of non-fiction the author led me to believe it was. I was devastated. Knowing John is Deaf himself gave his book some credibility to begin with, but learning that he wrote to book to further a cause he cared deeply about was even cooler. Having taken ASL courses and this Deaf Culture course, discrepancies in Deaf education are something I’m familiar with. However, learning that MindField was written to shed awareness on Deafness and the importance of residential schools for the Deaf was something I can respect.

Overall, this whole presentation was really interesting. My exposure to the Deaf World is very limited. Most Deaf events I attend are through the University and the number of Deaf people in attendance is often limited to the ASL teachers. When I’ve attended Deaf events with a large number of Deaf people in attendance, my interactions are limited. It was nice to hear a perspective on Deafness, the Deaf World, and American Sign Language from someone outside of the ASL department. The more I broaden my exposure to new things, the more I can learn. One message I took away from John’s presentation, that he may or may not have intended, was to not be afraid to try new things. As a child, he was very adventurous and always seeming to find new mischief everywhere. As an adult he entered the Deaf World without knowing the language and really having limited experience with it as a child…mostly through his relationship to his brother. Mostly, I felt more reassured in my ASL. It made me feel like it’s not too late for me to become fluent and that the most important thing required of me is a desire to learn it.


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