American Sign Language: An Introduction

Q&A with Milos Provci (Serbia), who is currently enrolled in an American Sign Language (ASL) course at University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

What motivated you to study ASL?

I’ve been intrigued by the lifestyle of the Deaf (yes, they capitalize it!) and this interest has only grown. I notice through my assigned readings what the ASL community needs, and I think of ideas that could contribute to a solution. There are not enough specialists, at high academic levels, to give the Deaf the quality of education they are entitled to. Since I enjoy teaching, I would love to one day teach a class of deaf physics majors quantum mechanics.


What goals do you have in mind (fluency, being able to connect with a friend, etc.)?

ASL is quite different from Serbian Sign Language, which takes more of its roots from Britain. Still, I do hope to use it in Serbia as well, if for nothing else than to spread awareness. My best friend in Serbia is very interested in it as well and is actually asking me to teach him occasionally over Skype. Also, teaching: the idea of a person letting their potential go to waste because the world isn’t ready for them yet frustrates me. I want the Deaf to have equal opportunities in academics.

Have you studied ASL (or another type of sign language) in your home country?

I didn’t know a single phrase of ASL (or any other SL) until my first class in the U.S. I wanted to be completely surprised, like going to a movie without watching the trailer. I am very thankful for this approach, because that first class was the most awesome class of my life. I’d like to share my experience from this first class but I don’t want to make this too long, so if you are interested, please ask!

What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered studying ASL?

Honestly, the hardest thing for me was reading other people’s spelling. I learned how to spell letters the first week, but then when the professor started spelling our names I couldn’t keep up. Now I spend 30 minutes to an hour every day playing an ASL fingerspelling game so I can get to a level I’m satisfied with. The word signs are mostly intuitive, so I’ve not had any problems with those.

People might assume that ASL is just English, but signed. How is ASL different from spoken English?

I joke around with friends saying the structure of ASL is like primitive English. I’m obviously no expert but from what I’ve noticed, only the words which are necessary are used. There is no need for prepositions, many things are left to context, words are the same for questions/positive/negative statements, and the only difference is the facial intonation. This kind of structure is very beginner-friendly. Also, something a friend from class noticed is the following: when describing something, it appears that the signer narrows down the traits of what is being described. I’m going to write an example of a sentence in English, and the literal transcript of the appropriate ASL:

Who is that brown haired man in the green shirt over there?

There man hair brown shirt green who?

Why do you recommend ASL study?

It’s eye-opening. Seeing this little world that kind of goes unnoticed, because they can’t be loud, leaves a very strong impact on you. Also, we need more people who speak sign language. We all live on the same planet, in the same community. What they do impacts us as well, so why wouldn’t we all connect? I don’t plan to make ASL my primary interest. I’ve always considered language as just a tool to talk to who you want to reach. However, Deaf culture, which comes with learning ASL, is very wise and interesting and deserves its time in the spotlight as well.