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Ubiquitous video technology and social media have given deaf people a new way to communicate. They’re using it to transform American Sign Language.
For more than a century, the telephone has helped shape how people communicate. But it had a less profound impact on American Sign Language, which relies on both hand movements and facial expressions to convey meaning.
Until, that is, phones started to come with video screens.
Over the past decade or so, smartphones and social media have allowed ASL users to connect with one another as never before. Face-to-face interaction, once a prerequisite for most sign language conversations, is no longer required.
Video has also given users the opportunity to teach more people the language — there are thriving ASL communities on YouTube and TikTok — and the ability to quickly invent and spread new signs, to reflect either the demands of the technology or new ways of thinking.
“These innovations are popping up far more frequently than they were before,” said Emily Shaw, who studies the evolution of ASL at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the leading college for the deaf in America.
The pace of innovation, while thrilling for some, has also begun to drive a wedge between generations of Deaf culture.
Perhaps the most dramatic example: To accommodate the tight space of video screens, signs are shrinking.
“My two daughters sign in such a small space, and I’m like, can you please stretch it out a little?” said E. Lynn Jacobowitz, 69, a former president of the American Sign Language Teachers Association. “We chat on FaceTime sometimes, and their hands are so crunched up to fit on the tiny phone screen, and I’m like, ‘What are you saying?’”
The problem is familiar to Dr. Shaw, 44, and her wife, who is Deaf. (Just as there can be different signs for the same thing, Deaf is capitalized by some people in references to a distinct cultural identity.) They have four children, ranging in age from 7 to 19, who often use the language differently — signing with one hand, for instance, for words that she and her wife might typically make with both.
“When they’re talking with each other, and with their peers,” she said, “I have a very hard time following the conversation.”