All my life, I’ve grown used to the English version of signing the words breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But I began to notice a change this past year when my ASL interpreters repeatedly signed those three words in a more “ASL-like” manner. You can view the differences in this video. I’m surprised that I never realized this distinction sooner. My “ASL” interpreters before college must have used the English version of those signs so frequently that I never thought of any alternative signs. (Yet another reason why college is better than high school, but that’s beyond the scope of my article.)
The three signs are fairly straightforward. They all start with “eat” which makes sense since all three are meals. Then the dominant arm is used to indicate the time of the day: morning, noon, or evening. This is much, much more aesthetically pleasing to see than using single-letter versions of those meals that correspond to their first letter (b, l, and d). This is, again, part of a series of ASL signs that differ from their SEE, or Signed Exact English, counterparts by omitting the use of signing letters to represent a word. The use of letters representing the first letter of a sign is one of two distinct features of Signed Exact English. (The other, of course, is that SEE strives to be a direct word-for-word translation of ASL.) SEE, while not its own language like ASL, is often what students learn at first since it is easier to learn. After all, if one knows the English language well, he or she can just learn the signs of each English word. But that doesn’t mean SEE is better than ASL. In fact, the Deaf Community strongly discourages the use of SEE.
So what are the downsides of using SEE? In my opinion, there are three main points. The first and most important is that SEE cannot realistically replicate every single word in the English language. People can speak faster than they sign, even when accounting for time needed to breathe in the former. This means that a series of short small words such as “tell me, is it a big one on my arm or is it not?” can really throw a train wreck in a person trying to replicate words down to every single “a.” A person signing in ASL generally omits small words like “a” and “on.” An ASL equivalent for my sample question would be probably be signing “Tell-me-big-small” and then pointing to one’s arm. Related to that, trying to translate every single word will likely tire people’s arms quicker than ASL will. There’a reason why many deaf students who use ASL are provided two interpreters per class (as I am) even for just a 50-minute lecture. Signing is a physically exhausting job if done with attention and precision, and there’s no need to exacerbate things by painstakingly signing every single “the.”
The second downside is that it interferes with ASL comprehension. I already told you an example of true ASL signs that differ from their English versions. A similar case is with the word “red.” The ASL sign for Red is performed by touching your index finger below your lips and stroking it down reasonably quickly. But it can also be done by crossing your middle finger over the index finger, and performing the same sign. That cross will form the letter “R” – see this. But why add needless complexity to our sign when we were perfectly fine with just one letter? Moreover, there’s no other sign, for a color or otherwise, that closely resembles red so much that we would want the extra cross for distinction. This word is one of many that are different among commonly performed ASL and SEE. Some, like red, don’t have a significant difference to cause much confusion in a conversation between an ASL proponent and an SEE proponent. But others, like breakfast, could prove problematic and would require interrupting a conversation to ask questions. But the interference of ASL comprehension goes beyond just mismatching signs. SEE is performed following English grammar since it’s a translation, but ASL follows different grammatical rules. The question “When was the last time I saw you” might be expressed in ASL as signing “Last-time-saw-you-WHEN?” The order of words, as well as what’s ultimately signed, can differ substantially. This creates a unfortunate chasm between ASL and SEE users. While such people can often understand each other regardless, it would be nice if they were actually signing under the same guidelines.
The third might be one of my minor nitpicks, but I find that SEE simply not interesting. When done properly, ASL is a pleasing language, a sight to behold. But SEE, due to its constraint of being a translation, can’t match the fluidity of ASL, as it must follow the standard rules of English grammar. If you ever get a chance to see SEE uses and ASL users in close proximity, compare the two signs. I am not arguing that ASL is so beautiful that it’s ineffable, but from my experience, ASL in general has less jerky and stopping motions than SEE does.
Of course, there are other opinions on SEE. I have seem several websites that condemn SEE on the basis that it excludes deaf people from the Deaf Community. This claim does seem reasonable since I would imagine that people want to follow the “exact” same language, but it’s difficult to prove something like this scientifically. Add that to the fact that SEE and ASL users can often understand each other, and I don’t think that SEE people are significantly excluded, if at all. I’ve been to many events organized by deaf people and I don’t think I’ve had much difficulty fitting in with other ASL users. That’s one of the beauty of fingerspelling, which is thankfully common to both users.
By the way, can you sign all letters of the alphabet in four seconds? I can do the entire alphabet faster than four seconds on both hands.