As Joanne Baek spoke with a fellow writer in December, she tried to explain a short story she had recently written. But the reaction was not what she had hoped.
Baek struggles with language, and her peer had trouble understanding the story’s humorous elements. She noticed, though, that the more demonstrative she was, the more her story resonated.
“It’s like using my body helped activate my brain,” Baek said.
Soon after, she started attending a weekly American Sign Language conversation circle at the Vancouver Community Library. Baek hopes the small, weekly group, which met Sunday, will bolster her communication skills.
“I find the language very expressive, and for someone who struggles with language, that’s helpful to me,” Baek said.
Baek already knows some sign language. She recalled a social encounter with a deaf couple a few decades ago, saying it was more meaningful than most conversations.
“It was such a profound experience that two strangers could be so present,” Baek said.
That ability to connect also drew Dave Sutherland to the group.
Sutherland regularly bowls with about a dozen deaf people. He started learning the language through his bowling comrades.
“They’ll correct you, which I enjoy,” Sutherland said. “They’re happy to help you get it right.”
Rob Nyczaj, who is deaf and led the conversation circle Sunday, said teaching the language can be a community-building tool. Nyczaj moved to Vancouver in May, joining more than 73,000 people in Washington who have hearing disabilities, according to 2017 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
“I feel like it’s part of my responsibility to raise that awareness,” Nyczaj said. “I wanted to find a place that I could call home.”
Eliana Delfeld, who moved to Vancouver from Colombia 14 years ago with Spanish as her first language, can relate. She said she joined the group because it’s important to understand multiple languages.
“We shouldn’t keep deaf people apart from society,” Delfeld said. “We need to involve deaf people in the community.”
During Sunday’s circle, the group used signs to communicate about topics — such what they did for Valentine’s Day and emotions they’ve felt recently — and played games that forced them to practice. One repeated takeaway: don’t feel afraid to complement the signs with facial expressions and by mouthing words.
“You really need to know the context before you know what the signs are,” said Traci Tingley, a senior library assistant who helped organize the circles in 2017.
Tingley’s interest in the language began a few years ago after seeing someone use signs during a performance.
“It just looked so cool,” Tingley said. “It looked beautiful.”
Baek agreed, re-emphasizing the language’s appeal as she headed toward the library exit after the circle.
“It’s a beautiful language, expressive in a way,” Baek said. “That’s important.”