The personal journal of author and photographer Jason Pettus

Thoughts after a semester of sign language.

On the cusp of “graduating” from my first semester of sign language, today I pause for some thoughts on teen girls, doddering grandpas, and the joy in being officially smarter than a dog

#asl #signlanguage #class #course #lifeprint #startasl #columbiacollege #aslinstitute #chicago #Deaf #community #culture #teenagers #fiftysomething #sadgrandpa #mortality #growthmindset

[Need to get caught up on the entire saga of me learning American Sign Language (ASL) and getting involved in the Chicago Deaf community this year? The complete set of links is at the bottom of the page.]

Elderly people learning sign language

So if I haven't made this clear yet, let me explain that I'm mostly learning ASL this year through self-study at home from two websites, Bill Vicars' and Michelle Jay's Both have paid versions if you're looking for the full academic experience of graded tests, teacher feedback, connection with your peers and more; but what's cool about both of them is that they offer the actual lessons themselves completely for free, meaning that you can become conversational in sign language at them for no money at all, which is the way I'm doing it.

It turns out, in fact, that in the thirty years since the 1988 student protests at Gallaudet University, a three-semester “core curriculum” has been developed to teach ASL, presented as ASL 1, 2 and 3 classes that correspond with traditional Spanish 1, 2 and 3, French 1, 2, and 3, etc (and in fact is the second most studied foreign language in America, right after Spanish); and that this three-semester track has become pretty standardized in the ensuing decades, which means that everyone pretty much learns the exact same thing from these three classes, no matter what school or textbook or teacher they have. And so it is with these free classes from Lifeprint and StartASL too; they also present their courses in a 1, 2, 3 format, broken up respectively into 45 and 37 lessons (15-15-15 for Lifeprint, 14-12-11 for StartASL). If you aim for getting through a lesson a week, then, you're essentially looking at one year to complete the three-course track, which pretty neatly corresponds to taking such classes at a community college over a fall, spring and summer semester one academic year.

Of course, the online classes are missing a crucial element of learning ASL, which is the chance to actually practice conversations in real time with other human beings; in fact, this is how most Deaf people learned ASL in the years before a standard academic curriculum, simply by conversing with other Deaf people and learning by example, which is the same way children learn a spoken language long before they enter school and learn a written one. One of the ways I've been doing it, for example, has been by attending an evening workshop at Chicago's Columbia College; called the “ASL Institute,” it meets once a week for six weeks per course (so 18 weeks total if you attend them all), essentially a shortened version of Columbia's normal daytime class, but one that only costs $100 instead of the daytime class's $800 (plus of course the need to enroll in that case; for the Institute, you simply Paypal the money and then just show up).

In fact, Columbia College offers an entire four-year “Deaf Studies” degree, and is apparently one of the more prestigious programs for that in the entire Midwest, which makes students flock from all over to attend; one of the things these students have done is create a social “ASL Club” for themselves, and so I joined that as well in an attempt to meet more signers and practice more ASL conversations. I finally had a chance this week to attend my first event of theirs, a pizza night to celebrate the end of the school year, where I was greeted with a shock; that just like my experience a few weeks ago at the “ASL Game Day” at the Chicago Public Library, the pizza night at the ASL Club this week consisted of me (a 50-year-old man), and a roomful of twenty teenage girls, with not a single other male in sight besides a professor who popped in for five minutes and then left again.

In fact, once I thought about it, I realized that this has mostly been my experience at the various Deaf social events I've been attending around the city this spring; nearly all of them have been completely dominated by women, and for the life of me I don't know why that is. Maybe something to do with different empathy levels between the genders? After all, one of the other surprising things I've discovered at these Deaf community events is that the majority of attendees so far have actually been hearing people, who like me are in the process right now of learning ASL, but unlike me are not planning on it being their main form of spoken communication in the future, but are learning it as part of eventually becoming teachers or interpreters or church volunteers. Maybe this kind of calling simply appeals to women more than men? Maybe men are just not as social in general as women, and it's simply reflected in this specific context? Or perhaps I've just been attending things so far that naturally appeal to women more than men, like arts conferences and library game days and academic pizza parties? I'm not sure, but it's certainly a subject that's worth more pondering this year.

This week was the final workshop of the ASL 1 Institute session; and I'm tackling lesson 12 this week at both Lifeprint and StartASL, which means that I'm very close to “graduating” ASL 1, however you want to define that when it comes to someone self-studying at home, taking no tests and receiving no grade. The good news is that it's been pretty successful so far, and this week I anticipate finally memorizing my one thousandth term in ASL (and currently with a 91% retention rate on the rest, whenever I spend a day running through all 950 flashcards); but the bad news is that most five-year-olds typically know about 5,000 words in their given spoken language before ever going to school for the first time, so knowing 1,000 isn't nearly as impressive as it sounds at first. In fact, it turns out that even dogs can typically learn about 400 different human words and keep them all straight in their heads; so when you learn 1,000 words yourself, what you're really saying is, “I'm slightly more than twice as smart as a chihuahua!”

I kid, of course; in fact I'm extremely proud of how much ASL I've learned in only 62 days so far, and am pretty flabbergasted that in a mere two months, I can already hold entire conversations in ASL without saying a single word out loud. Granted, they're simplistic, fumbling, error-filled conversations, in which I have to spell out every third word I want to say; but that's still better than I ever got in German when doing my book tours in that country back in the early 2000s. But that said, one of the main observations I had during my evening workshops at Columbia College was that, by the end of them, both the teacher and the younger students were fingerspelling at a rate way faster than I could keep up with; and while I'm pleased that I have the ability to fingerspell back in any way at all, absolutely I do so at a speed equivalent to a stroke victim trying to talk again, with there being a fairly good chance that I will never get faster than this for the entire rest of my life.

I've talked about this before, but it bears repeating, that it's an inherently humbling thing to learn sign language for the first time at the age of 50. Hell, it's humbling to pretty much learn any new thing for the first time at the age of 50, which is why so few 50-year-olds ever do. Ever since aging into my fifties earlier this year, I've been intensely aware of how, for example, I can't even really call myself “middle-aged” anymore; the fact is that I'm now closer to being elderly than I am to being thirty, which makes me less middle-aged and more a “gentleman of a certain age,” the polite term for, “You ain't an old man yet, but you're freaking close.”

This comes with certain funny/dispiriting aspects just on its own, away from the challenge of learning a new language at this age; for one hilarious/depressing example, at the ASL Club pizza night this week, I actually ran into one of the teenage girls who had been at the Chicago Public Library game day the other week, at which point I learned that the girls at that had not been high school students at all but rather college students, most of them from the nearby Moody Bible Institute. I don't need to tell my fellow fifty-something brothers and sisters what a depressing thing it is to realize that you're now too old to be able to tell the difference between high-school students and college students; it's essentially exactly as depressing as the first time you hear that someone in your high school's graduating class has officially become a grandparent for the first time.

I suspect it's a pretty common experience, the first time you hear of someone your age becoming a grandparent, to find it impossible to think of yourself as old enough to be a grandparent, which is then the catalyst for a bout of cognitive dissonance; for me at least, it's triggered a whole reckoning this year about age and mortality, desires both professional and sexual, and just how little time I have left to explore any of these topics. I mean, sure, at this point in history, there's a decent chance I could live to 100; but it's much more realistic to expect that I'll kick off sometime between 70 and 80, and if not that than at least that this will be the last age I'll be completely healthy and mobile, which means that in all practicality, I have the shockingly short amount of 20 to 30 good years left in my life, which once you're 50 seems like the blink of an eye.

What do I want to do with these last 20 to 30 years? Who do I want to be? What kind of example do I want to set? When my friend Carrie's twin sons are middle-aged themselves, what do I want them to think of me when they look back at these years? All of these questions have come flooding into my life for the first time this year, when in fact I didn't really ponder them that much even at 49, which proves just how powerful arbitrary symbols are in human existence.

Certainly I want to go out having had an opportunity to embrace messy humanity in all its intimate, social glory, after a twenties and thirties that was mostly inwardly focused, two-plus decades where I went through and survived some very dark times indeed, and have now earned the right to celebrate that survival. This is the main reason I'm learning ASL in the first place, after all, because it's becoming harder and harder for me to interact with the human race through spoken English, and I don't want my functional deafness to imprison me away from humanity like it does for so many late-deafened adults.

And certainly I want to go out while continuing to embrace the growth mindset I've always had as an adult, an incessant and obsessive curiosity about the world that has compelled me to always be trying new things, not really worrying about individual successes and failures as long as I was always learning new things along the way. And this is yet another reason I'm learning ASL, because it pleases me to take on something so big and challenging and full of new insights about the world that I had never thought about before, at an age when most people are opting out of ever learning anything new again, content to officially start spiraling in on their existing lives like a snake eating itself, chomping up more and more of their psyches until eventually nothing is left but a hard, bitter little apple core, sitting in their recliner watching 16 hours a day of television and griping about The Kids with Their Facebooks and The Rubik Cubes.

So in this respect, I'm very proud to be graduating from ASL 1 in a couple of weeks, even if I turned out to be the slowest student in the entire class; and I was the slowest student in the entire class, make no mistake about this being false modesty. The way I look at it, the important part is not that I'm slower than everyone else who learned with me, but that I'm faster than all the people who never tried in the first place, and those are odds at succeeding that I like a whole lot more than directly comparing myself to a bunch of 22-year-old girls. Um, a bunch of 16-year-old girls? Sigh. I started my first-ever ASL lesson on March 6th, the day after my 50th birthday, and I'm looking forward a year from now to looking back on my 51st birthday, and hopefully seeing a fully conversant signer with a new batch of friends in the Deaf community, happy and social and perhaps even no longer fingerspelling like a stroke victim. As always, I deeply appreciate you taking this journey with me, and I encourage you to drop a line with comments, questions and requests any time to

The Complete ASL Saga of Jason Pettus
4/24: Deaf culture primer: The “Deaf President Now!” student protests of 1988.
4/23: It's been harder than I thought it would be to find good sign language partners.
4/19: Book review: A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles, by William Stokoe
4/15: ASL Adventures: “Game of Thrones” night at Deaf Planet Soul.
4/14: Book review: Inside Deaf Culture, by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries
4/8: ASL Adventures: The Chicago Inclusive Dance Festival, and my first “signing in the wild.”
4/4: Book review: The Mask of Benevolence, by Harlan Lane
4/4: Book review: Train Go Sorry, by Leah Hager Cohen
4/3: He speaks! He speaks! ...Er, he signs! He signs!
4/1: Book review: Seeing Voices, by Oliver Sacks

3/31: Book review: The Other Side of Silence, by Arden Neisser
3/28: Those sexy deaf teens sure are courageous!
3/27: Book review: Shouting Won't Help, by Katherine Bouton
3/25: Book review: Deaf in America: Voices From a Culture, by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries
3/22: Book review: A Deaf Adult Speaks Out, by Leo Jacobs
3/22: Book review: Don't Just Sign...Communicate!, by Michelle Jay