How do you explain?

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Here in Japan, I am helping out with ASL classes being taught at the university level. Part of my job is to make sure that students are using proper sign form – not closing fingers when they should be spread, palms facing the right way, etc. So I watch hands a great deal, and I recently noticed that one student was alternating hand dominance. I asked her which hand she wrote with, and she replied that she is left-handed.

Today she came for a private tutoring session with me (lots of students sign up for them), and I wanted to cover the idea of dominant vs. non-dominant hands in sign language. I had confirmed already that the concept exists in Japanese Sign Language, so I thought it would be a simple matter to explain it to the student. What I didn’t realize, though, is that she was raised orally, and has only been learning any sign language for about a year.

How do you convey this concept to someone who doesn’t know sign language at all? Or rather, how do you do so, when you don’t speak their language? I’m sure it would be a simple matter if I could tell her in Japanese, but that’s not an option for me. I’m honestly not sure that she understood any of what I told her; I tried to leave her with the message that she should use whatever hand feels most comfortable. If that means switching dominance, that’s fine too – some people are just more comfortable that way, and while it’s a little jarring for someone who is watching, it’s no worse than a slight spoken lisp – certainly still understandable.

But she indicated that she’s not just using what feels comfortable, she’s copying what she sees from others. I suspect this applies to JSL as well as ASL, though I wouldn’t be able to recognize it in the former. So I do want her to understand the concept, but is it worth asking someone else for help? Does she even care, or want to know? Having taken ASL linguistics classes, I feel it’s an important topic, but she may very well prefer to be oral and not care too much about sign language. Should I explain it? Should I ask for help explaining it? How do you explain something like this?

That’s my latest pondering from Japan!

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