A little while ago I was on Skype with a deaf man from Uganda and we were trying to communicate with sign language. I know a little American Sign Language and he knows a smattering of different languages having worked with several different teams from countries all over Africa. I assumed we would have some difficulties in communicating but I decided that if this is what I am going to be doing for the rest of my life (working with the Deaf in various sign languages) that I might as well start now and jump head first! So we were communicating fairly well considering my limited ability to communicate. I was nervous and was moving quicker then Skype could keep up with for video, so it was hard for him to see me sometimes. I also was trying to use a language that I have had limited practice with however when my son Jude woke up I brought him downstairs and continued the conversation.
His first question when I got back was whether Jude was African. A reasonable question to ask and I told him Jude was from the USA. He was wondering about the difference in appearance between me and my son and asked if my wife was the “same” as Jude. Again I said that he was not but that he was… and that is when I forgot the sign for “adopted.” It was too long since I used it and I couldn’t quite remember it. Hesitantly I signed to him what I thought was the sign for adopt. He looked at me like I was a little crazy and asked me again if that was what I said. I agreed and repeated it thinking he did not see what I signed. He then finger spelled to me what the sign I used meant: to steal.
I was a little shocked that I had accidentally told him I had stolen my son Jude! oops! I tried to clear it up and finger spelled to him a-d-o-p-t-i-o-n.
A little later I talked with a friend who has worked with this man and related the story to her. She was very amused because not only did use the wrong sign, but the sign I used literally means “to kidnap.” She told me that several months later when she saw him again his first question to her was if I had really stolen Jude or not. I do not know if he will ever invite me to his home now or not. But I learned a lot!
So now I know that making up signs based on a vague memory is not usually a good idea and can communicate the wrong thing! No wonder cross-cultural communication can end up with so much confusion.