Radio Inspire

How To Learn Sign Language

The enchanting music of sign language | Christine Sun Kim


Interpreter: Piano, “p,”
is my favorite musical symbol. It means to play softly. If you’re playing a musical instrument
and you notice a “p” in the score, you need to play softer. Two p’s — even softer. Four p’s — extremely soft. This is my drawing of a p-tree, which demonstrates no matter how many thousands
upon thousands of p’s there may be, you’ll never reach complete silence. That’s my current definition of silence: a very obscure sound. I’d like to share a little bit about the history
of American Sign Language, ASL, plus a bit of my own background. French sign language was brought
to America during the early 1800s, and as time went by,
mixed with local signs, it evolved into the language
we know today as ASL. So it has a history of about 200 years. I was born deaf, and I was taught to believe
that sound wasn’t a part of my life. And I believed it to be true. Yet, I realize now
that that wasn’t the case at all. Sound was very much a part of my life, really, on my mind every day. As a Deaf person living
in a world of sound, it’s as if I was living
in a foreign country, blindly following its rules,
customs, behaviors and norms without ever questioning them. So how is it that I understand sound? Well, I watch how people
behave and respond to sound. You people are like my loudspeakers,
and amplify sound. I learn and mirror that behavior. At the same time,
I’ve learned that I create sound, and I’ve seen how people respond to me. Thus I’ve learned, for example … “Don’t slam the door!” “Don’t make too much noise when
you’re eating from the potato-chip bag!” (Laughter) “Don’t burp, and when you’re eating, make sure you don’t scrape
your utensils on the plate.” All of these things
I term “sound etiquette.” Maybe I think about sound etiquette more than the average hearing person does. I’m hyper-vigilant around sound. And I’m always waiting
in eager nervous anticipation around sound, about what’s to come next. Hence, this drawing. TBD, to be decided. TBC, to be continued. TBA, to be announced. And you notice the staff — there are no notes contained in the lines. That’s because the lines
already contain sound through the subtle smudges and smears. In Deaf culture,
movement is equivalent to sound. This is a sign for “staff” in ASL. A typical staff contains five lines. Yet for me, signing it
with my thumb sticking up like that doesn’t feel natural. That’s why you’ll notice in my drawings,
I stick to four lines on paper. In the year 2008, I had the opportunity
to travel to Berlin, Germany, for an artist residency there. Prior to this time,
I had been working as a painter. During this summer, I visited
different museums and gallery spaces, and as I went from one place to the next, I noticed there was no visual art there. At that time, sound was trending,
and this struck me … there was no visual art, everything was auditory. Now sound has come into my art territory. Is it going to further
distance me from art? I realized that doesn’t
have to be the case at all. I actually know sound. I know it so well that it doesn’t have to be something
just experienced through the ears. It could be felt tactually, or experienced as a visual, or even as an idea. So I decided to reclaim ownership of sound and to put it into my art practice. And everything that I had been
taught regarding sound, I decided to do away with and unlearn. I started creating a new body of work. And when I presented this
to the art community, I was blown away with the amount
of support and attention I received. I realized: sound is like money, power, control — social currency. In the back of my mind, I’ve always felt
that sound was your thing, a hearing person’s thing. And sound is so powerful that it could either
disempower me and my artwork, or it could empower me. I chose to be empowered. There’s a massive culture
around spoken language. And just because I don’t use
my literal voice to communicate, in society’s eyes
it’s as if I don’t have a voice at all. So I need to work with individuals
who can support me as an equal and become my voice. And that way, I’m able to maintain
relevancy in society today. So at school, at work and institutions, I work with many
different ASL interpreters. And their voice becomes
my voice and identity. They help me to be heard. And their voices hold value and currency. Ironically, by borrowing out their voices, I’m able to maintain
a temporary form of currency, kind of like taking out a loan
with a very high interest rate. If I didn’t continue this practice, I feel that I could just
fade off into oblivion and not maintain
any form of social currency. So with sound as my new art medium, I delved into the world of music. And I was surprised to see
the similarities between music and ASL. For example, a musical note cannot be fully captured
and expressed on paper. And the same holds true
for a concept in ASL. They’re both highly spatial
and highly inflected — meaning that subtle changes can affect the entire meaning of both signs and sounds. I’d like to share with you
a piano metaphor, to have you have a better
understanding of how ASL works. So, envision a piano. ASL is broken down into
many different grammatical parameters. If you assign a different parameter
to each finger as you play the piano — such as facial expression, body movement, speed, hand shape and so on, as you play the piano — English is a linear language, as if one key is being pressed at a time. However, ASL is more like a chord — all 10 fingers need
to come down simultaneously to express a clear concept or idea in ASL. If just one of those keys
were to change the chord, it would create a completely
different meaning. The same applies to music
in regards to pitch, tone and volume. In ASL, by playing around with these
different grammatical parameters, you can express different ideas. For example, take the sign TO-LOOK-AT. This is the sign TO-LOOK-AT. I’m looking at you. Staring at you. (Laughter) (Laughter) Oh — busted. (Laughter) Uh-oh. What are you looking at? Aw, stop. (Laughter) I then started thinking, “What if I was to look at ASL
through a musical lens?” If I was to create a sign
and repeat it over and over, it could become
like a piece of visual music. For example, this is the sign for “day,” as the sun rises and sets. This is “all day.” If I was to repeat it and slow it down, visually it looks like a piece of music. All … day. I feel the same holds true
for “all night.” “All night.” This is ALL-NIGHT,
represented in this drawing. And this led me to thinking
about three different kinds of nights: “last night,” “overnight,” (Sings) “all night long.” (Laughter) I feel like the third one has
a lot more musicality than the other two. (Laughter) This represents how time
is expressed in ASL and how the distance from your body
can express the changes in time. For example, 1H is one hand, 2H is two hand, present tense happens closest
and in front of the body, future is in front of the body
and the past is to your back. So, the first example
is “a long time ago.” Then “past,” “used to” and the last one, which is my favorite, with the very romantic
and dramatic notion to it, “once upon a time.” (Laughter) “Common time” is a musical term with a specific time signature
of four beats per measure. Yet when I see the word “common time,” what automatically comes to mind for me
is “at the same time.” So notice RH: right hand, LH: left hand. We have the staff
across the head and the chest. [Head: RH, Flash claw] [Common time] [Chest: LH, Flash claw] I’m now going to demonstrate
a hand shape called the “flash claw.” Can you please follow along with me? Everybody, hands up. Now we’re going to do it
in both the head and the chest, kind of like “common time”
or at the same time. Yes, got it. That means “to fall in love”
in International [Sign]. (Laughter) International [Sign], as a note, is a visual tool to help communicate across cultures and sign languages
around the world. The second one I’d like
to demonstrate is this — please follow along with me again. And now this. This is “colonization” in ASL. (Laughter) Now the third — please follow along again. And again. This is “enlightenment” in ASL. So let’s do all three together. “Fall in love,” “colonization” and “enlightenment.” Good job, everyone. (Laughter) Notice how all three signs
are very similar, they all happen at the head and the chest, but they convey quite different meanings. So it’s amazing to see
how ASL is alive and thriving, just like music is. However, in this day and age, we live in a very audio-centric world. And just because ASL has no sound to it, it automatically holds no social currency. We need to start thinking harder
about what defines social currency and allow ASL to develop
its own form of currency — without sound. And this could possibly be a step
to lead to a more inclusive society. And maybe people will understand that you don’t need
to be deaf to learn ASL, nor do you have to be hearing
to learn music. ASL is such a rich treasure that I’d like you
to have the same experience. And I’d like to invite you
to open your ears, to open your eyes, take part in our culture and experience our visual language. And you never know, you might just fall in love with us. (Applause) Thank you. Denise Kahler-Braaten: Hey, that’s me. (Applause)

100 Replies to “The enchanting music of sign language | Christine Sun Kim”

  • i feel like this would be a lot better if it were focused on her the whole time so we could actually understand what she's signing. It kind of takes away from the point otherwise

  • She’s so expressive and inventive, and I can only hope that my hair and speaking skills will ever be that cool.

  • I actually really want to learn sign language. But i'm confused should i learn asl or the sign language in my country. I want to understand asl but i'm afraid i won't be using it much in my social surroundings…

  • jesus christ, this was scripted. she's like 'lip syncing' like Britney Spears. she even got the cheesy hair style. she's merely 'dancing'…

    she loves getting tanned, that's probably an artistic thing.

  • The only way to be truly inclusive is to develop a new universal sign language that everyone, deaf or not, is taught as a second language after their mother tongue so we can all communicate with each other with our hands no matter where we come from.

  • I'm so glad to be able to have opportunities to learn asl. I've only been in a class for a little less than a year and I can already hold a conversation with someone who is deaf in my school. One of the best things about the language is that if you dont know the sign for a certain term, you can just easily fingerspell it.

  • Hint to video director: when someone says "follow along with me", don't look at the people following, look at the person leading. It was very frustrating, only seeing peoples' (poor) following of the signs she was demonstrating.

  • I always felt like sign language should be taught in schools from the very first day, so that kids can pick it up easily and it becomes a second language for everyone.

  • love her!! and the interpreter did a great job. i love that the audience knew to sign applause for Christine and then clapped for the interpreter

  • WOW!!!!!!! I am soooo envious of the young man that captures her heart! After 55 years in music and that I play 11 instruments as well as have worked in major studios, I now understand why people tell me that when they watch my fingers or arms, it is like I am painting a picture for them. Throat cancer has robbed me of much of my hearing because the radiation left my ear drums full of liquid and had to be cut! Ouch! I have been deaf for two years and even now that the plugs came out, I still don't hear right so ASL is used by certain clerks who know it at various store I go to. In one way I am sorry to have gone through the cancer experience but in another way feel so blessed that it opened me up to a whole wonderful community of people that most will never be blessed by and enjoy their variation on life as this wonderful young lady here.

  • love your art!! Your so captivating, i really enjoyed seeing the world though your eyes. Also your translator (Denise?) was great – she spoke rich tone so your words held more depth! would love to learn ASL, count me in 🙂

  • “You might just fall in love with us” oh I did, it only took me one of those 15 minutes to see that. I actually got my diploma AB1 in Dutch Sign Language last week

  • I'll use this video featuring a beautiful woman to practice ASL. 🙂 I think I'll do this more often. Thank you so much.

  • They must have practiced this ENDLESSLY because sometimes the interpreter would say something before she signed it

  • I couldn't tell what direction she was going with this. Is she looking at the structure of ASL from an artistic/visual perspective represented in music/sound the way an English professor might study English, or promoting ASL learning / Deaf activism, or giving us a window into how she creates her art?

  • You are an inspiration.Thank you for pointing out that ASL can be a universal language for the deaf and the hearing. God bless!

  • I loved the voice of the translator…she made an amazing job, she sounded so calm and comforting. It just felt like I would be able to understand Christine

  • Asl and Pse are just so interesting and beautiful to me! I love learning it! In live in a new country now so love asking people the signs from their country and compare it to ASL! So interesting

  • if this is the level of her artistic ability then she never progressed past being a 3 year old child. I do not understand why people in USA are so fascinated with primitive art and am wondering would she receive the same attention if she wasn't a pretty disabled young woman.

  • ive always thought learning asl would be useful and an interesting learning experience, but ive never had a true interest in actually pursuing it. watching this really makes me want to, though! that "falling in love, colonization, and enlightenment" bit kind of opened my mind to how elaborate and beautiful it can be.

  • It's an incredibly expressive language and the fact that International Sign Language exists is a powerful concept that can bridge massive language barriers. The camera cuts were pretty annoying ._

  • Just started teaching myself ASL via a few apps and YouTube videos…it's so genius and should be the taught in all schools! Especially the ISL she referenced. Thank you Christine Sun Kim for such a beautiful message that has encouraged me to increase my signing efforts!

  • I have been learning sign language for a few yesrs now. I consider myself to be a good signer but it is hard for me to undersrand others when they sign unless its PSE, but this girl is so easy to understand. I could mute the video and understand her (except for the parts where they cut to other scenes)! The way she uses her face and uses signs was so easy for me to understand 🙂

  • "You might just fall in love with us" I can relate to that so much. I fell in love with ASL in third grade. I am now in 11th. I have been learning ever since.

  • Sign languages are only kind languages works for me. Trying to learn ASL too through lectures, news etc, like this one. Cutting the lecturer off is rude, unhelpful, inacessible… Cc in English is helpful but don’t substitute ASL/any sign language .

  • I've taken ASL this semester and will continue to take ASL, I love ASL. It's honestly an adorable and rich language full of expression. I love it! I encourage others to learn it as well !

  • The first bit was incorrect. Certain Natives communicated in sign language in this land long before ASL was ever brought.

  • When I think, I hear a voice: does she think in pictures? Videos? The memories of the feeling of signing? HOWWWWW?

    also I just realized that if I imagine running my hand over a thick, soft, long and furry blanket–I hear the sound also! I keep trying to imagine running my hand over a texture or blanket and ONLY feel the texture, with no sound

  • Com certeza vou assistir esse vídeo várias vezes… me inspira muito o jeito dela, como ela se expressa, os olhos… lindolindolinda

  • ASL poetry "can be felt, seen and experienced as an idea". .Well why do we need the additional sound and visuals, then TED? Why can't I watch her and absorb her art. Why doesn't TED believe this thing it's written in the synopsis: That I CAN have the experience without it being "translated" for me. I have been doing an hour search now for some ASL poetry online – but so far not one that doesn't have hideous jazz music or interpretation stuck in after the fact. Not one video of ASL poetry for ASL speakers – always sacrifices the video of the performance for the privilege of the hearing. I am hearing by the way, and I am not trying to be an unsolicited advocate – I am just speaking for me – it just ruins the experience I have had of listening to ASL and deaf poetry live – without sounds of word or music or whatever – and that experience was transcendent. This was barely reminscient. Oh well…at least I had that one live experience.

  • I love watching people sign. It’s so expressive. I hate how people try to force it away in favour of speaking. We don’t tell French people to speak English in France. Why would we force someone to speak instead of sign? We should all learn to sign. It’s a wonderfully diverse and expressive language and even from a linguistic point of view there is so much we can learn. I’m trying to learn it but I find all languages difficult and there’s not really a written guide to the grammar of Auslan (I’m Australian). Hopefully I’ll manage it one day though.

  • I would love to see what another ASL person interprets when seeing these signs without ever being able to see the script so I can compare what is being signed to what is being interpreted.That would give me an idea of how ASL is fully experienced. Can someone let me know how to test it out. It could be using any song, text, or script. Thanks.

  • "However, in this day and age, we live in a very audio-centric world. And just because ASL has no sound to it, it automatically holds no social currency."

    I strongly disagree. This talk assumes no one else cares about those who are deaf, and are exclusive to the deaf community because of this; therefore assigning them less value socially. I don't think that claim could be more wrong seeing that many of us simply don't know ASL, just like many of us may not know a foreign language. Those of us capable of receiving and using sound as a communicative device have the same problems as those without it.

  • My boyfriend is hearing impaired and he definitely has never learned sound etiquette! He chews sooo loudly, talks loudly right into my ear and stomps around the house 😂

  • I’m learning sign language. I had no idea there was a universal sign language!! So awesome!!!!! Now I have a new challenge to take on!

  • The whole video I was wondering if the audience will applause or do the applause sign in the end

    They got confused and did both 😀

  • I want to learn sign language. I feel passionate that the deaf community should live as much of an equal and free life and be listened to as anyone else who can talk or hear. It’s moving to see these activists in action. I want to show my support

  • I always wished to learn the ASL as another (language). But don't know where to do it and is it the same around the world? It is a stupid question I know but since my mother tongue is not English so shall I learn another hand gestures?
    Once I found 2 deaf girls I wanted to tell them that they are beautiful but I found that I can not!

  • Watching Ms Kim might inspire me to get back into ASL. I really enjoyed my ASL classes and the chance I had later to use it when I taught children in school. I agree with Greg Barlow. Maybe the people that record TED could use split-screen as a routine method of temporarily showing both the presenter and audience when the audience is participating.

  • I saw people signing on each others hands. One was fully sighted and hearing, the other was not. I was curious, and learned that their friendship went over 30 years back, and the sighted, hearing person had taught herself, when her best friend lost sight and hearing.

  • Wow, what a powerful message! Sign language is beautiful! I am learning sign language and trying to teach my grand kids.

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