On 625B H Street in Washington D.C., roughly fifteen minutes away from the Lincoln Memorial, there is a Starbucks. While the store’s menu and pricing are similar to its other locations, it lacks one thing: talking. That’s because this location, known as a Signing Starbucks, commences almost all of its business through American Sign Language.
American Sign Language, colloquially known as ASL, is one out of over three hundred sign language dialects across the world. Contrary to popular belief, its grammatical structure is different from that of English, nor is it a one-to-one translation of English. The tone of a sentence is carried through facial expressions such as raising and lowering eyebrows and can be used to signal sarcasm. For controversial topics such as abortion, the specific sign someone chooses to use can even hint at their standing on the issue. The language is almost two hundred years old, and more recently, a new form of sign language called Baby Sign Language has received high praise from professionals in child development. Baby Sign Language allows infants and small children to use their limited motor skills to make simple gestures for their needs (milk, hurt, play, etc.) This allows adults to understand what the child needs, and gives the child a way to communicate with the abilities they have. Though research backing the benefits of Baby Sign Language dates back to the nineteenth century, the first steps to implement it were not taken until around the 1980s.
Since then, Baby Sign Language has been spread through various television programs, websites and visual guides. It’s even found its way into some classrooms, which allows students to express their needs quietly and with less frustration. However, despite sharing many of the same signs, Baby Sign Language is not the same as American Sign Language. It lacks ASL’s grammatical structure and attention to tone and is used for simple communication. Nonetheless, research suggests that children who use this method of communication show an ability to understand spoken words earlier than those who do not. Babies may even cry less because they feel they can express more! “Signing gives babies more refined tools than just pointing to express what they’re thinking,” says Lane Rebelo, a baby sign language instructor and the founder of Tiny Signs, an online resource for parents. “Parents who use sign language end up finding their little ones understand so much more than they ever would have imagined once they get started.”
Whether it’s in the classroom or at Starbucks, there’s no doubt that sign language has hit its stride in the modern day. In the United States, ASL is the third most commonly learned language, after Spanish and French. It has also become more frequent on television; shows and movies such as Ginny & Georgia, A Quiet Place and CODA explore the dynamic between hearing and deaf family members by utilizing on-screen sign language as they do so. Still, destigmatized and accurate portrayals of sign language and Deaf culture are lacking. “Descriptions of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals should be based on actual assessments of their personalities just like anyone else,” wrote the National Association of the Deaf in its guidelines for media portrayal of the deaf community. Though many popular language learning websites like Duolingo don’t offer sign language courses, there are many free accessible resources online. If you’re someone who likes trying new things, why not pick up a few signs?