Monday, September 25, 2023

How Do You Say Potato in Sign Language?

Kids are curious. They get you hemmed up and pepper you with rapid-fire questions, most of which have highly philosophical answers, and expect you to juts know everything. It's daunting and sometimes annoying, but it can serve a purpose as well.

For the past few years, I've been trying to learn more languages. I've been at least conversational in Spanish since I was a kid, partly because of taking the subject in school and partly because of growing up in North Miami. But when we moved out of the neighborhood, I worried that I might have fewer opportunities to speak it, so I joined Duolingo and started working on it a few minutes a day. Then, as I started realizing how many people around me speak Haitian Creole, I started working on that, too. Duolingo has a new module on Kreyol now. Pretty basic, but a great starting place.

In addition to those languages, I've been trying to learn ASL. At first, it was because the interpreter at my previous church got injured and couldn't sign for so long anymore. I'd already been interested in learning, so I decided to make a study plan and try to get ready to fill in for her. I mean, I'm pretty good with languages, I'm committed, so how hard could it be?

Apparently, really hard.

Three years later, I can sign well enough to have a conversation, so long as the person is really interested in food, animals, clothing, or our feelings. There are a lot of local and online classes, as well as YouTube channels and apps that teach the language. Lately, I've been using an app called ASL Bloom that's been really effective for me. I just work on it a little every day, and I'm getting better.

This is where the littles come in, the ones I affectionately call, "The Riddlers." The best way to learn something is to teach it to someone who knows less than you do. With that strategy in mind, I started buying them children's books in Spanish and Kreyol, as well as some resources in ASL. It caught on like a grease fire in a motel diner. My four-year-old now knows her ASL alphabet, and she's constantly asking how to spell things. (Helpful Note: She thinks spelling and signing are the same thing. We're working on that, too.) Whenever she gets a word stuck in her little head, she asks me to spell it, and she's pretty accurate. If we're in the car, I can just fingerspell where she can see it, and she gets it pretty much every time. It helps that I'm pretty slow at fingerspelling. We can even sing the alphabet song on the way home from school - her singing and me trying to keep up with signing. If we're at home or somewhere that we won't die if I use both hands, I'll spell the word for her, and then show her the sign for the word. If I don't know the sign, then I have to look it up, but that's the beauty of giving in to her constant questions. I'm forced to learn something or look stupid to the one person who still thinks I know everything, she gets to use her brain and her fine motor skills, and we have a little something in common.

In fact, she's learned enough signs now, beyond the basic baby signs she learned before she could talk (want, milk, more), that we can communicate a little, just between us. We were sitting across a table at a party a while ago, loud music forcing everyone to shout their conversations, and the two of us were able to communicate about the food, just she and I. It helps that food is one of my go-to subjects for vocabulary. 

We can also play tricks on people. Anytime someone comments on how smart she is, I tell them she's a champion speller. Just give her any word to spell, no matter how long, and she can spell it. The mark always gets so hypnotized with the four-year-old spelling a word like excellent or birthday, they don't even notice me behind them fingerspelling the word for her.

Sometimes, she turns the questions up to eleven, or the other littles are with us, and I get outnumbered. Sometimes, they want to know how to say the word in ASL, then Spanish, then Kreyol. I have to keep the apps in my quick access tray on my phone when they get together. It's like a flipped classroom, but instead of the materials being switched, it's the people. They challenge me to remember what I should already know, and force me to learn new words and signs to keep up with their voracious appetite. And that's the best thing about it. Not only are they keeping me on track with my quest for language learning, but they're also keeping that same fire alive in themselves. Most kids lose that curiosity and stop demanding to know things once they start school, but I'm hoping that indulging them will hold off that decay just a little longer. But if I can harness all that curious energy and channel it to my benefit, they might grow to love learning before homework sucks the joy out of it.

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