No, I’m not writing about folks receiving signs and signals from God, but rather sign language! I learned the alphabet of American Sign Language as a kid and have never forgotten it. I actually started an elective course in ASL in college too, but dropped it due to my intense schedule that semester. Once again I find myself learning sign language, only this time there is an added challenge. My sign language class is in Spanish! Sign language here in Peru is related to ASL, but there are certain differences too. It’s not actually an official language of Peru, though hopefully that will change sometime in the future!

I’ve been to 2 classes now. We meet on Saturday afternoons for 3 hours. Whew! While we’re learning some signs, much of our time so far has been focused on learning to be expressive with our face and body – the whole first level is about gestures. This is a stretch for me in more ways than one. Firstly, this introvert is not really into getting in front of a classroom and playing charades, which is what this amounts to most of the time. Secondly, the activities are obviously language based and sometimes even related to Peruvian culture. In the first class we were supposed to act out circumstances and emotions and our classmates wrote the word on their small marker board. I know a lot of basic words for emotions, but there are some limits to my vocabulary still. Sometimes I understood exactly what was happening, I just lacked the word I needed to describe it and write it on my marker board! This week we did something similar, but we were supposed to demonstrate a dance and our classmates would spell the dance with sign language letters. I know my alphabet, but I didn’t know the names of the dances that my teammates were doing since many are specific to Peru! The other funny phenomenon this week was trying to spell in Spanish. While we were acting out different animals, I tried to spell elephant and used ph instead of f (because in Spanish it’s elefante)!

I suppose the class is good for both learning sign language and for practicing Spanish, though we’re not allowed to speak during class. My teachers are actually both deaf, so having students speaking would be disrespectful to them. The problem with not speaking is that my brain is operating with this really strange mixture of languages. When one speaks a second (or third…) language decently fluently, they no longer translate and there is a firm association in the brain between the word being used and it’s meaning. That’s not true in the beginning, though. When I first started speaking Spanish, I would think in English, translate to Spanish, and then speak. Now when I speak Spanish, my brain is operating in Spanish. The problem in my sign language class is that it’s easier to learn a new language while processing what’s happening in my head with my native language. However, since the class is in Spanish when directions are written on the board or responses are given, well… that means there’s three languages going on in my head at the same time. Between that and being forced to be more extroverted than normal, I am EXHAUSTED after a 3 hour class! While chatting with classmates on the way to the bus stop after class, I don’t know what language wants to come out of my mouth!

You might be wondering what I’m doing in this sign language class. That remains to be seen, honestly. A friend introduced me to the deaf school, Señales, where I’m taking the classes. It’s a school that is operated by an Evangelical Christian group here in Peru. The day I visited I played Jenga with the students, which thankfully is possible without conversation. I enjoyed the visit, but lamented the fact that I couldn’t communicate. I went to great lengths to learn Spanish to communicate with the folks here and suddenly I was faced with another group of people with whom I was still not able to communicate! I learned a bit about the attitude in Peru toward people who are deaf that day, and it wasn’t really a pretty picture. I wondered if there was some way I might help with this ministry. The first step to being really effective, though, would be learning the language. From there, well, we’ll see.

I don’t know if I will ever be able to communicate effectively in sign language (especially since that sometimes includes spelling Spanish words in signs!), but it may prove easier as time moves along. For now it’s another stretching adventure for me as I pursue that which He has for me!

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