I just got back from my ASL class tonight. I've been having a lot of fun there lately. It was even better this week, since I didn't poke myself in the eye this time (Who would have guessed the sign for "mirror" could be so dangerous?). This time, we learned many of the place names within Canada. (Fun fact: the sign for "Ontario" is alarmingly similar to masturbation!)
We also practiced our conversational skills. As with all second language classes, these dialogues never sound anything like actual conversations.
A: "Hello. My name is Denton. I am 30 years old and live in Medicine Hat."
B: "Hello. My name is Ryan. I am 22 years old and live in Medicine Hat."
A: "I have a brother. I live in a brown house."
B: "I have a sister. I live in a blue house."
...and so on. Valuable practice, to be sure, but it's a halting, unsure, double-checked and half-vocalised production every step of the way. As it always is, in the beginning.
Then, after class, I was walking past my instructor, and I saw a remnant of Hallowe'en left on the chalkboard ledge: a large plastic zombie gorilla. My instructor saw the look of disgust and terror on my face, and I looked back, and started repeating a single sign, over and over: "don't like/Don't Like/DON'T LIKE/DON'T LIKE/DON'T LIKE!!!"
She understood completely, and laughed at my childish fears. Still, the point remains that for all our vocabulary training, that was probably the closest I've come yet to a natural-sounding, real-world conversation. Amazing, the difference that a little emotion makes. Right then, I realised that sign language works best if you're willing to act it out.
Come to think of it, that applies to most spoken languages, too.