Aspiring Polyglot Problems: American Sign Language and The Case of the Compact Mirror

It happens to the best of us. The frustration of learning a language and then having to let the opportunity to use it slip away. The one language that frustrates me each time is American Sign Language, but it is not for the reasons you might think.  

That Helpless Feeling When You Can't Communicate With Someone

Yesterday while shopping at my local Target, it hit me in the face.  The feeling of helplessness set in, which quickly turned into aggravation.  I was looking for a compact mirror; you know the kind you can throw in your purse for those quick lipstick touch-ups or just to make sure you don’t have anything in your teeth or hanging out your nose? I looked up several aisles as I always attempt to look for an item first before asking a crew member. When I couldn’t find any, I sought out a red vest.  She was an older woman with the toll of the day’s stresses written all over her face. I asked her about mirrors, and she responded meekly, “I’m deaf.”  The worst thing about the exchange was that in my delirious state, it’s as if I hadn’t heard her and asked the question again.

How Not To Come Off Like a Jerk

“I’m deaf,” she said once more as she pointed to her ears. It registered, and I felt like a jerk. As it often happens when you are learning a language, you seem to forget what you’ve studied at the moment you need it. My brain packed its bags and went on vacation leaving me there to succumb to the barrage of insecurities coming my way. I stood there for a few seconds trying to remember the sign for a mirror. Yes, I had my phone, and I could have googled it as was suggested by husband after I told him this story, but instead, I did what helped me in Germany, I put on my acting hat on and became a mime. I pulled an imaginary mirror out of my purse, pretended to look into it and put on lipstick.  A light bulb went off, and we were off to the same aisles I had just perused earlier. Going through the aisles like hamsters seeking out food only to confirm my answers, she shrugged as if to say sorry.  She started to sign to me, and it was the equivalent of someone speaking fast to you in your target language when you’ve just learned how to say “Hello” and ‘Goodbye!”  My looks must have said it all since I just stood there frozen like a statue. I pleaded with her saying it was okay while signing “thank you.”

I went back to find my friend who was three aisles over with a disappointed look on my face.

“I can’t believe I couldn’t communicate with her,” I said, “You just don’t know when you’re going to need to use sign language, but I should have known this!”

I understand that I did get to the same result, but not being able to communicate with her the way she interacts with the world still didn’t sit well with me.  This interaction is a learning experience, and now that I know what the sign is for a mirror, again, I don’t think I’ll forget it.  Something to point out is that the reason why I purchase an insane amount of language books with an emphasis on conversation is to avoid this type of situation. Learning how to introduce yourself, order food, hail a taxi are all essential skills to have; however, chances are you will use your target language in this manner also.  If anything, learning keywords may prevent you from putting on an entire theater production in the middle of the hair products aisle.

Two Ways To Sign Mirror

YouTube always saves me! Bonus: You can teach your baby ASL. This is perfect!


Handspeak has a chockfull of resources which I found earlier today. The video demonstrates the word mirror as a quick Miss USA wave.

AE - My hand gesturing the mirror sign in American Sign Language (animated GIF)
Look! I'm learning! I'm learning!


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