By Carlee Frank

Sign language is a beautiful and often times misunderstood language. American Sign Language –or ASL for short –is not English or an English equivalent. The language has its own grammar system, dialects and rules. It was developed by French monks in the 1500s who used gestures as a way to bypass their “vow of silence”. Later on, French priest Charles Michel De L’Eppe opened the first free public school for the deaf in Paris in 1760.

Sign language was then brought to America by a man named Thomas Gallaudet who hoped to educate and communicate with deaf people. He studied sign language in Europe and then opened a school for the deaf in Connecticut and developed a unique sign language for the United States. Nowadays, there are thousands of variations of sign language used worldwide.

At the Concord Senior Center on Tuesdays at 1 p.m., instructor Charles Klaus has been offering an ASL course to the public. The class began on April 3, and will conclude on April 24. So far, students have learned the manual alphabet, numbers 1-20, months of the year and days of the week. He has also taught time telling in ASL, money and food vocabulary and manners such as please and thank you. 

Klaus became interested in ASL and the deaf community during employment with Goodwill Industries –where he said a large portions of their clients were deaf –in the 1980s.

“I initially learned from some of the folks that were there, because of course at that time I was new to it too,” Klaus said. “And after that work experience it caused me to take some additional courses at St. Mary’s School for the Deaf in Buffalo.”

After those courses, he took Deaf Communication at the University at Buffalo and volunteered as an operator with Deaf Link. Deaf Link, he said, is a relay service between the deaf and hearing communities. For example, deaf individuals will contact a relay service if they need to schedule a doctor’s appointment or simply order a pizza. Since the advent of texting and email, this interaction has become much easier for the deaf community, but Klaus said it was vitally important at the time.

He said he sees the same determination to learn the language and help the deaf community in the students at his Tuesday ASL classes.

“People go to these classes because it speaks of their willingness to learn and willingness to help others,” Klaus said. “By attending it and teaching it we’re acting on our heart and what we love to do –or at least have been encouraged to learn.”

He shows his students signs using his own body and also brings handouts with ASL visuals for the students to take home and practice. He brought along an ASL dictionary with roughly 50,000 signs, but joked that he didn’t want to overwhelm the new students.

ASL is a very complex language. It is based on concepts rather than on English words. For example, the sign for “jump” is based on the concept of jumping rather than on j-u-m-p. It is performed by laying the left hand flat, palm to the sky, and an upside down “v” with the pointer and middle fingers of the right hand bounce and bend off of the left palm. However, jumping as in, “My heart jumped”, uses a very different sign since it is a different concept.

Klaus mentioned that learning ASL has opened him up to an entirely new community of people, from which he has made many new friends.

“Deaf people are happy if you sign, ‘Please slow down’ or ‘I’m just learning now’. They’re generally very cordial and friendly people who are willing to help you learn,” Klaus said.

For now, Klaus is only holding one more class, but he said he may bring another course to the Senior Center in the fall depending on popular demand. So, stop by the Concord Senior Center on April 24 and learn a bit of American Sign Language.