future teacher writes:
Dear Dr. Vicars,
I am trying to learn ASL basics since I will be in a Elementary
general classroom and with inclusion, children of every kind are now
welcome in the general classroom regardless of their disability and
I want to try to prepare for the day when I have a hearing impaired
The issue has become personal recently as the 4 year old daughter of
a friend of mine has gotten to the point in her hearing loss where
it was recommended she start learning ASL. I realized then the
importance of knowing at least the basic ASL for my future students
because of her and her mother's struggle with her pre-school
teacher, so I began learning how to fingerspell. I envy your
dexterity because my hands really cramp up after an hour of
practice! Anyway, I ran into a pickle today. We are learning about
different common lessons in the elementary classroom when writing a
professional letter (like this one) came up. I went to your site and
to google to try to find out how to sign common greetings and
closings. I was very surprised to find that I couldn't find a thing!
Are there ways to sign things like this [(Dear Dr. Vicars, ), (To
whom it may concern, ), (Sincerely, ), and (With deepest sympathy,
)] or do none exist?
I ask this because lessons in writing professional letters actually
start before the children have much experience with spelling (it is
a class activity that starts in Kindergarten). I assume it would be
just as hard on a small child to decipher a big new word I finger
spelled to them as it would be for any child deciphering a big
written word at that age. If my assumption is incorrect, please let
- Jamie Allen
Since written forms of ASL are not widely used within the Deaf
community, the typical forms of "address" you might see in written
English communication are not common in American Sign Language.
Let's consider the word "dear" in the phrase, "Dear Mr. Smith."
In general, the sign LOVE (arms crossed over chest) or the sign
PRECIOUS (claw hand changes to "S" hand) are the two closest
concepts to "dear." There is also a sign that means "I love love it"
which is known as "KISS-FIST" wherein a person kisses the back of
But really none of those concepts matches the English concept of
"Dear John Smith." Realistically "dear" at the beginning of a letter
or email doesn't mean the person is "dear" to you but rather it
means you are being cordial and showing a bit of politeness and/or
respect. Thus in an effort to bridge a non-bilingual ASL child over
to become a bilingual ASL/English fluent child you will need to use
signs such as "IT MEANING RESPECT [body-shift "OR"] POLITE.
Let me turn this around a bit. When two individuals pass by each
other in the hall or on the street they sometimes nod their head
toward the other person. What does that nod mean? How would you
write it? If I were to ask you to give me a one-word English
equivalent to the "head nod while passing on the street" gesture it
would be rather challenging. I suppose we could try to say that the
"nod" means "hello" but that would be superficial. it obviously
means more than.
The "nod" when done while passing is a gestural form of "addressing"
the other person -- a way to show that you acknowledge their
existence. It conveys the concept that I respect you enough to nod
my head a bit. It is quite possible that the "nod" is descendant
from an actual "bow" which obviously means more than just "hello."
Some concepts are so culturally laden with meaning that they will
not translate easily into some other culture's "nearest" words.
The word "Dear" in the title of address isn't just a "word" it is
part of a phrase. The moment you try to break the word "Dear" apart
from its phrase you've already ruined your best hope for finding an
equivalent translation in another language. The phrase "Dear Mr.
Smith," over time has changed to mean something quite different from
the English words "Mr. Smith is dear to me."
Thus I suggest that a way to teach the meaning of "Dear Mr. Smith"
to culturally Deaf ASL-speaking is to show them an overhead picture
of a piece of correspondence, "START MAIL PROPER HOW-(rhetorical)?
QUOTE D-E-A-R M-R S-M-I-T-H COMMA QUOTE." Or even "SUPPOSE YOU WANT
WRITE / TYPE MAIL or EMAIL SOMEONE. START HOW? FIRST SENTENCE
TEND-to WHAT-DO? I OFFER GOOD WAY YOU WRITE D-E-A-R M-R S-M-I-T-H
Such explanations can help bridge the gap when you are instructing
Deaf native ASL users who are the children of Deaf parents who use
ASL. If your students don't "really" know ASL and simply know a bit
of home-signing or Signed English that their Hearing parents use at
home then the discussion regarding how to sign "Dear Mr. Smith" is a
moot one and your best use of time isn't worrying about how to sign
it in ASL.
Instead you should focus on developing a learning process whereby
you are able to communicate such concepts to your Deaf and hard of
hearing students visually through the use of actual examples,
pictures, pieces of correspondence.
Learning a few hundred signs online is a "good start" but it doesn't
replace the thousands of hours of training and practice necessary to
become fluent enough in ASL to effectively explain "deep" concepts.
If your students' residual hearing is not sufficient to enable
effective communication via speech (even with amplification) then I
encourage you to make sure they receive skilled signing provided by
either a certified interpreter and/or a certified Teacher of the
And even if becoming a terp or an instructor of the Deaf is not be
your thing, I am still very glad to see you making an effort to
brighten the lives of your future students.
Best wishes for your progress and success.
You can learn American Sign Language (ASL) online at American Sign Language University ™
ASL resources by Lifeprint.com © Dr. William Vicars