In a small classroom at the Augusta-Richmond County Public Library, adult students are learning to talk with their hands and listen with their eyes. The students are learning American Sign Language to get ready for chance meetings with deaf people.
“You have to be prepared to meet the needs of a group that have been in the past isolated,” student Dorothy Beck said. “I don’t know what it’s like to be a deaf person, but I know the sense of isolation can affect people.”
During a review on vocabulary and sentence structure, Beck shaped her fingers and hands into intricate motions that speak words from American Sign Language.
“He is my friend,” she signed to the class.
The group gathers once a week for a signing lesson with volunteer instructor Joyce Jones. Jones was introduced to sign language when her church choir combined it with songs, and several students said they are learning it to use with church ministries.
“God called us to communicate with everyone and take the Gospel,” Jones said.
Jones has used signing to teach a deaf Sunday school class, to translate prayers for the church congregation or for liturgical dances. There might not be a deaf person in the crowd, but signing adds a lyrical beauty to song and dance, she said.
Learning sign language takes patience and hard work, similar to any foreign language, student Gerald Williams said. He sometimes uses it to communicate with another signer who is on the opposite side of a crowded room when otherwise he would have to raise his voice.
“If you don’t use it, you lose it,” Williams said.
When Williams was visiting federal penitentiaries as part of a prison ministry, he encountered several deaf inmates. He wants to take his new skills to a Saturday morning homeless ministry.
The first step in signing is learning the alphabet, Jones said. Students gradually build skills by spelling words and sentences before learning the signs for words to create sentence structures.
Many words have tricks for memorization, such as forming the sign for the first letter of the word before making a motion. Other words resemble gestures associated with the word. The sign for “banana” mimics peeling a banana, and the sign for “milk” mimics milking a cow, Jones demonstrated for the class.