July's ASL Journey

The Beginning

Learning languages has been so intriguing to me since I was a kid. I had a childhood friend who was Hispanic and spoke Spanish to his family and I was amazed that he was fluent in two languages (Spanish & English).

Over the years, I never really had the opportunity or yearn to begin learning a new language due to unforeseen circumstances in my life (which I won't be talking about in this blog) and I had other things to worry about growing up, like how I'm going to get to the Moon or "this cool new video I found on YouTube" in 2009.

Fast-forward to high school. To get an Honors Diploma, you had to take 2 years of a Foreign Language class. At the time, my school only offered Spanish and French.

I thought French sounded the coolest and the way it sounds vocally was very pleasing to the ear, so I went with that.

I unfortunately didn't finish those 2 years because I felt that French wasn't what I was looking for.

I live in the mid-West, so it's very rare that you see or hear about people who know French or are from that part of Europe. I eventually dropped that class after a year, and ended up graduating with a Standard Diploma.

Fast-forward again to 2020, almost 5 years later. I got a brand new Oculus Quest 2 in October of that year. There was a game I played every now and then called VRChat, but since I didn't have a VR headset at the time, I didn't do much in the game. But now, I could play it all I want with all six degrees-of-freedom.

Something to know about me is that I have extreme social anxiety. So when I started playing, I never spoke to anyone. I was what they called "a Mute."

Mutes typically use in-game world pens, text chats, or use "Mute Boards," which are used to point to each letter of the alphabet to convey what words and sentences they want to say.

I was one of these types of players.

Over time, I met a few people in VRChat and was generally called their "designated mute friend." Well, one day, someone in my friend group told me that they have a friend who is also mute and wanted to introduce me to them.

I thought that was great because mutes weren't around that much at the time (nowadays, they're everywhere lol).

When we got to the world that his friend was in, he introduced me to them, and that's when it hit me.

I don't know sign language.

Their friend was signing to me and saying things that I didn't understand. Typically these days, mutes are known for using sign language to communicate with other players or mutes. But it wasn't a common thing at the time of meeting this person.

After that, I had stopped playing for about a month and a half, but got back on just to scratch that itch of something to do in my free time.

That's when I remembered the friend I met. I then searched "ASL" in the world menu and found one called "Experimental ASL World."

I joined a public instance, looked around, and saw a bunch of people in there signing to each other and hanging out.

To paint a picture, the world has a flat, grey floor with blue, white, and black futuristic-looking walls. The moment you spawn, you're greeted by a motion-captured avatar signing "Welcome," "Nice to meet you," "I love you," etc. Basic stuff.

Behind that avatar is a board with a wall of informational text explaining what the world is about, what to expect, rules on learning sign language and Deaf culture, and some resources on learning online.

Behind that is the lesson board for teaching sign language in VR. The board had lessons for American (ASL), British (BSL), French (LSF), and German (DGS) sign language. There's also another motion-captured avatar that shows you how to sign it in 3D space, as well as a 2D version next to it in video form.

Of course, I started with ASL because I'm American and that makes the most sense. The thing is, at the time, and due to the world being "Experimental," the lessons weren't in the most efficient order.

Typically when starting to learn a signed language (or any language in general), you should learn the alphabet first. In the sense of sign language though, signing the alphabet (or "fingerspelling") is very, very important for spelling names, proper nouns such as brands and store names, and even spelling words that don't have a sign or maybe you don't remember the sign.

On the lesson board, fingerspelling was the 7th lesson on the list. So naturally, I started with the first lesson and went downwards.

Over the next few days, I got to around Lesson 5 and felt confident in having my first conversation. It was slow, of course, but I ended up having some nice conversations with other players in the instance, and they would even help me with learning a sign when I didn't know it.

But remember, I didn't get to the fingerspelling lesson just yet. So I was using world pens to spell out what I needed to say.

Well, later on, I met someone who was on the PC version of VRChat and they were using a SteamVR add-on called "OVR Advanced Settings." This tool allows you to move your position in your play-space, making your avatar in-game appear to float mid-air or clip beneath the floor and such.

I waved over at the player and signed "HOW DO THAT?" ("How are you doing that?")

They responded saying, "O-V-R."

I stare at them puzzled and saying "AGAIN," to which they signed "O-V-R" again.

Still confused, I ask them what that means and they un-muted their microphone and asked "Do you know fingerspelling?"

I shook my head and they just sighed and waved me over to follow them. They took me back to the lesson board and pointed at Lesson 7, "Fingerspelling."

"This is the most important lesson on here and you should start with this one. As soon as you memorize that, you'll go far in your learning journey."

So I did. I took the next day and a half to memorize the alphabet and continued learning, for the next 2.5 years.

Fortunately, nowadays the lesson board has changed a ton over time. The fingerspelling lesson is the first on the list and the world creator improved on the motion-captured avatar and it's now the best it has been ever.

In my next entry, I'll talk about where I'm at now in my journey and what my plans are for the future in becoming an interpreter and professional in Deaf Studies.

Hope you enjoyed :) 🤟

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