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November 9, 2004

Sign language 101

From: Press-Enterprise, CA - Nov 9, 2004

By CARLTON VOGT / Special to The Press-Enterprise

Randy Von Gottberg's language class is different from most others. If his students are doing well, they don't say a word.

Von Gottberg's class at the Desert Pride Center in Palm Springs specializes in American Sign Language (ASL), the language used by deaf and hearing-impaired people.

"What I teach is very basic American Sign Language," says Von Gottberg. "Students learn how to say 'hello,' give their name and address, talk about the weather. At the end of the course, they could hold a very basic conversation, but nothing deep."

Some of Von Gottberg's students at the Pride Center come out of curiosity, while others use it as a prelude to further study. Still others come to be able to engage in basic communication with deaf people they encounter in their jobs.

Once students finish the 16-week course, they're "primed" to go on to more extensive training at places such as the College of the Desert, which offers more in-depth courses.

"At COD, for example, they go more deeply into deaf culture," says Von Gottberg, although he touches on some aspects of that in his limited course.

Von Gottberg became interested in American Sign Language about 30 years ago when he had a deaf friend and wanted to learn to communicate better with him. "I just found the language fascinating and wanted to go into it more deeply," he says. This led him to go to an interpreters' school in San Diego and eventually to work as a counselor to deaf people with chemical dependency problems. He currently works as an educational interpreter at the College of the Desert.

Most hearing people unfamiliar with sign language assume that it is all the same, but there are differences. Signed English consists simply of using a sign for each English word, translating in the manner in which most hearing people speak. American Sign Language, however, is more conceptual and consists of signs for various concepts. The order in which concepts, and their signs, are presented differs from ordinary English, and prepositions and articles are not commonly used.

Deaf people may use Signed English when communicating with a hearing person, but will use ASL when communicating with other deaf people. Finger spelling is another form of the language and uses a sign for each letter of the alphabet. People who sign will use this when trying to communicate words or concepts for which there is no sign.

"To properly learn ASL," says Von Gottberg, "a student really needs to let go of English. The idea is to communicate the concepts, and a lot relies on body movements and facial expressions."

Carlton Vogt is a freelance writer who lives in Palm Springs. He can be contacted at

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