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Want To Learn American Sign Language? 5 Steps To Get You Started

by Bruce Lawson

Because there are approximately 70 million deaf people who use sign language as their primary or native language, being fluent in the language has numerous benefits including:

  • being able to communicate with a deaf friend or family member
  • offering interpreting or translation services
  • communicating with some types of animals
  • using the language in your profession (e.g., scuba divers, firefighters, police officers)
  • making yourself more attractive to a job you are applying for

Whatever your reason is for desiring to learn the language, follow these 5 steps to become a fluent ASL signer.

Step One:  Learn The Techniques

There are several techniques that you should learn before you begin learning sign language.  These include the following:

Hand Positioning:  When you sign, your palms should be facing the person you are communicating with, you elbows should be bent, and your hands should be held at chest level.

Signing Direction:  Be sure that when you are doing a sign, you are performing it outward so that the receiver can read the sign more easily.

Facial Expressions:  Your face is very important when you sign, in fact, facial expressions are similar to how tone of voice and inflection are used in the English language.  The correct use of facial expressions is essential in adding the appropriate meaning to the conversation.

Eye Contact:  You should never break eye contact when you are signing with someone because it is considered very rude (it would be like plugging your ears when someone is talking to you in English).

Step Two:  Learn About Deaf Culture

In order to be involved with the deaf, and to not offend them, it is important to be aware of some of the unique attributes of deaf culture.  These facts are that:

  • Deafness is never viewed as a disability that needs fixing
  • Social events are very important to the deaf because there are usually so few people who are deaf in a given area
  • The deaf want to preserve ASL and do not support programs that try to help deaf children learn English (they believe that this deprives the deaf of their true language)
  • The deaf community is extremely tight-knit and it is very hard to break into (if you are sincere and eager to learn the language they will generally accept you into their circle)

Step Three:  Start With The Basics

Some of the basics that you should begin with, after finding out more about the techniques and culture, are learning:

  • How to spell the alphabet (when you do not know the sign for something, you can spell the word out with letters instead)
  • Basic greeting and conversational signs (e.g., hello, goodbye, thank you, how are you)

After learning these basics, you can begin to add more vocabulary and phrases to your repertoire. 

Step Four:  Increase Your Vocabulary

The best way to increase your vocabulary is through utilizing different resources around you.  There are 5 basic resources that you can use, which include:

Dictionaries:  Having an ASL dictionary on hand allows you to look up signs that you do not know or remember.  You can either purchase a hard copy or can find dictionaries online.

Apps:  There are several apps (some are free and some only cost a few dollars) that you can download to your smart phone or tablet to help you to have everyday access to study guides, videos, and dictionaries.

Classes:  Taking a class gives you the opportunity to be able to interact with others who are also learning the language and to ask any questions you might have.  You can take an ASL class at a local college (most do not require you to be enrolled to take a class there), at a library, or recreational center.

Websites:  There are numerous online resources that have practice tools, free lessons, videos, quizzes, and alphabet charts to help you to become immersed in the language.  Two excellent resources that you can utilize are called ASLU and Handspeak.

Step Five:  Practice With Others

The last step to learning sign language is to practice with a partner on a regular basis.  If you are having trouble finding someone to practice with, you can:

  • encourage a family member to learn the language with you
  • attend an ASL class so that you can meet others learning the language
  • post your need for a partner on a school or community bulletin

Once you have practiced with someone who is also learning the language, when you feel comfortable, try practicing with someone who is deaf.  By following these 5 steps, you can be on the road to learning this beautiful language and reaping all of the benefits knowing ASL has to offer.