ON HAND: Signing too fast, Part One

This originally appeared in The Tactile Mind Weekly in Trudy’s ON HAND column.

Whenever an ASL student or interpreter approaches me and says, “Gosh, you sign too fast!” I often grimace silently to myself.

I know they don’t mean anything personal by saying that, but it does strike a nerve. It’s not because of my high school interpreter constantly mocking my signing speed. She would, for the benefit of hearing students, mimic my signing speed by speaking quickly using nonsense words. The students would crack up or nudge me knowingly whenever I signed and the interpreter became lost, even if I signed slowly and in English order. She truly had an impact on my confidence about my ASL for years. I’ve written about this many times, and will always write about it because it’s a disgraceful example of interpreting. But that’s not the reason I grimace.

The real reason is because when a hearing, non-native user of ASL tells me I sign “too” fast, the burden of not communicating clearly is placed squarely upon my shoulders. A person who uses ASL as a second language is telling *me*, a native user of ASL, that I am the one who causing the communication barrier? I often respond with a wry chuckle and sign, “Or maybe you eyes-receptive slow!” and throw the hot potato back.

I can certainly understand the need to slow down for presentations and/or workshops–and I *do* sign fast. But is going up to someone and saying, “You sign too fast” really an ideal solution? What is “too” fast? Interestingly enough, when I told other native signers I was going to write about this pet peeve, they all nodded in agreement. One of them said that he is told he signs “too fast” by hearing people all the time, but never by another deaf person. As he said that, I realized that it was true for me, too–never has a deaf person told me that I sign “too fast” or even “fast.” Go figure.

So, how about this: if you’re a hearing signer who truly finds someone’s signing faster than you can understand, ask with a smile, “I’m slow at understanding ASL, would you mind slowing down a bit?” Accept the responsibility of being the one who carries the communication barriers, rather than dumping it on the deaf person. And please don’t sigh and say “Too fast!” as you shake your head in disbelief. This will bring increased patience on both sides of the issue. Or at least for me, anyway.

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