Sign Language Abroad

So a few posts ago I mentioned I traveled to Shanhaiguan. When we started our 5 hour “slow train” journey seeing the country side, talking to some of the natives. Before the train pulled out Shenyang station, we met a little Deaf girl. It had been weeks since I left Washington, DC and had anyone to sign with. Well, besides my friends, family and almost anyone who will let me wave my hands at them while I talk. I became overwhelmed with excitement when I had the chance to try to converse with this little girl with the little American Sign Language I know.


Clearly, she didn’t sign ASL and was only four, but I have learned so much about non-verbal communication by studying ASL with my friends in DC that I was willing to give it a shot. The little girl was fidgety and mostly only talked to me about the food she had just eaten and wanted to play games on all our phones. It might seem inconsequential, but it was an experience that gave me a larger appreciation for Deaf culture abroad.

Obviously the language barrier in China is the most difficult thing to overcome while living here. A lot of conversation with locals is a mish-mash of broken English and really terrible Chinese with a hefty dose of gesturing and waving to make oneself understood. One of the most important things I learned in my crash course of survival Chinese during the first week in Shenyang was the hand gestures for numbers. Everyone from old grizzled street vendors and surly taxi drivers to the “cheery” cafeteria workers in the canteen use signs to convey which numbers they mean paired with spoken word to get this idiot foreigner to cough up the dough and leave their store. So I’d like to pass this knowledge on to you. Here’s how to count to ten in Mandarin!

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Keep in mind, the pinyin is a much better guide to pronounce these words than the phonetic spellings I mention they sound like. Like the rest of Chinese it’s all in the intonations of the words.

Because my brain has been permanently fused together signing & talking, (Something I think kind of rules but can make others think I’m crazy.) I’ve decided to use this wacky quirk to help my students. Sometimes, I will use a sign as a mnemonic device to help certain new vocabulary stick in those little noggins. Many of my students are more advanced so it’s helpful when teaching them more more difficult words for things/concepts they already know. For example, using the sign for “smell” which very obviously means “smell” when learning the vocabulary words “aroma” or “stench”.

I’m looking forward to learning more Chinese Sign Language. I want to find where/if it overlaps with ASL and what gestures are similar. I’m almost more interested in learning Chinese Sign Language than Mandarin itself!  Hopefully by learning more signs, it will give me an insight on how to communicate better in this really foreign world I live in.

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