Chapter 1 of The Signing Family: What Every Parent Should Know about Sign Communication continued . . .

Signing requires skill, and not everyone is adept at it. Learning any language requires more than just the repetition of words or signs. Many people fail a course in a second language because they are unable to learn the vocabulary or grasp the intricacies of a new grammar. Learning to sign presents similar challenges.

Proficiency in a signed language also requires a command of nonmanual signals. Spoken languages rely on pitch and intonation to clarify the meaning of words. These features of speech can alter the meaning of the sentence You are leaving now to indicate a command (You are leaving now!), a question (You are leaving now?), a threat (You are leaving now? That's what you think!), or a statement of information (You are leaving now. The anchor is up.). Similarly, signed languages use nonmanual signals to alter the meaning of signed phrases. The head tilts forward and the eyebrows rise or squeeze together when a question is asked. The shoulders sag to express exasperation. The eyes look from one part of the signing space to another to indicate subjects and objects. Nonmanual features of ASL can also be used to express adverbs. The concept of doing something carelessly is expressed by protruding the tongue as if pronouncing the sound "th." For example, forming the adverbial "th" at the same time as signing study is one way of saying that a person is not studying hard. Contact signing and, to a lesser extent, English signing also involve the use of nonmanual characteristics.

Signing is an "in the air, off the body" form of communication. For people accustomed to languages based on sounds, it requires a dramatic shift in thinking. Your ability to make this shift will determine how proficient and effective you are with signed communication.

How Do I Know What Kind of Signing Is Best for My Deaf Child?

Many honest professionals suddenly become cavalier when asked to recommend a form of sign communication. In a very straightforward manner they reply, "Just use American Sign Language with your child because lots of deaf people use it," or, "Your family speaks English, so just use English signs with your daughter." You may even hear people say that it is the right of all deaf children to use one type of signing or another. But how could they possibly know what is right for a child without knowing that child and his or her family? These professionals have about as much right to tell you what signs to use as they have to tell you what to name your newborn child. ("Call him Jason. A lot of people call their baby boy Jason.")

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