""Deaf Nights"" at Cafe Crema give students opportunity to converse in sign language

Anyone in a cafe or coffee shop enjoys the conversations they have as much as the food they are eating. On Friday nights at Cafe Crema in Pacific Beach, groups get together for special conversations that are just as interesting and lively as any other; the only difference is that they are silent. With their hands, the speakers use their American Sign Language skills for communication. These “”Deaf Nights,”” lasting from 9 p.m. to closing, are especially popular with ASL students throughout the San Diego area who are eager to practice their signing with each other, with members of the deaf community and other hearing people who can converse in ASL.

Tyler Huff

According to the ASL Web site, http://ASLinfo.com, ASL was developed by deaf Americans to communicate with each other, and has helped to create the deaf culture in the United States. It is now used by about 1.5 million deaf people in this country and in English-speaking parts of Canada. Its standardization began in 1817 when Laurent Clerc and Thomas H. Gallaudet founded the first school for the deaf in the United States. Students soon spread the language to other parts of the United States and Canada. Since then, it has been preserved and passed down from generation to generation in residential school environments, especially in dormitory life.

Even when signing was not allowed in classrooms, children of deaf parents (codas), deaf teachers and deaf staff would pass it on to other students in secret. In the last century, the use of ASL has been discouraged by hearing individuals. Educators have insisted on having deaf children learn to speak English to function in the hearing world by speaking and lip-reading. Others have gone as far as tying the hands of deaf children to prevent them from signing. In spite of these and other attempts, however, it is still the first and preferred language of the deaf community. The deaf community thinks of ASL as its natural language, which reflects cultural values and preserves its tradition and heritage.

Contrary to popular belief, the language is not English conveyed through signs. Research has demonstrated that it has the complexity and expressiveness of spoken languages. It has its own unique grammatical structure and is capable of expressing subtle, complex and abstract concepts. Like other languages, new vocabulary is constantly being introduced in response to cultural and technological changes. Unlike other languages, however, ASL is visual and is made up of specific handshapes and movements.

Tyler Huff

“”Deaf Nights”” at Cafe Crema was initiated by the deaf community some time ago and has been a weekly tradition ever since. The event gives this community the opportunity to gather as a group and communicate in its own language, which is a significant step in the lack of group events for the deaf community in San Diego. It attracts a diverse group of speakers from all levels of ability, including those who can only finger spell.

“”It brings in a big crowd,”” said Cafe Crema employee Melissa Van Saanem.

Usually, about half of the participants are deaf. ASL instructors have even assigned their students to attend these nights to gain experience in interactions by conversing with the community. Others are also encouraged to go so they can learn the language and culture and interact with the participants.

Kimberly Robbins, a John Muir College sophomore, found out about “”Deaf Nights”” through her ASL class at UCSD. She was encouraged to go by her instructor, and has gotten good practice by going almost every week.

“”It has helped a lot with my grades in the class, and it is a great experience,”” Robbins said.

The interactions have had other benefits as well.

“”We get an insider’s look at what the culture’s like, and I have made many new friends by going,”” Robbins said.

Even those who have no knowledge of sign language are able to join in on conversations. The language is quickly picked up from other speakers, and through their interactions, they can soon converse with everyone else. The culture and language are both highly valued by the deaf community due to the struggle to overcome adversity as individuals and as a group.

Events such as “”Deaf Nights”” have allowed the community to both carry on its language and culture and share them with others. Despite efforts to integrate deaf Americans into speaking culture, they remain a distinct group with shared unity and their own culture, values and traditions, of which they take great pride. Deaf identity will never be fully understood or acquired by hearing individuals because they will not have had the experience of living without the ability to hear. However, “”Deaf Nights”” will help them gain a greater understanding and appreciation for the deaf language and culture.