American Sign Language – Getting Started – Tips | Rules | Resources
“A different language is a different vision of life.”
Federico Fellini, a renowned Italian film director and screenwriter
Sharing information takes on a totally different shape when your eyes become your ears and your mouth becomes your hand. Sign languages open up new horizons of communication. In this post we will share practical tips on how to learn American Sign Language.
What is ASL?
A linguistically complete, complex and natural language, American Sign Language (ASL) is the language used by deaf or hard-of-hearing people. Though being a sign language, ASL deals not only with signs, but also incorporates facial expressions and body postures to communicate meaning.
There is no universal spoken language, and sign languages are no exception. Due to regional, dialectal, cultural differences, there are approximately 6,000 different sign languages! Here it should be emphasized that ASL is mainly spoken in the United States and Canada; therefore, people knowing, for example, British Sign Language, will have hard times understanding the American form of it.
Having said that, the American Sign Language itself has a number of variations caused by different factors. Regional, racial/ethnic, gender, and age characteristics sometimes influence the language and signs. This should be taken into consideration to avoid misunderstanding.
Who can benefit from learning ASL?
At first glance it may seem that ASL learning courses and materials are catered only to those who have a hearing loss. However, ASL knowledge and skills are sought by myriad groups of people: friends and family members of deaf people (who obviously need to communicate in ASL), instructors, interpreters, as well as language enthusiasts who use the language for professional or self-study purposes.
Police officers, retailers, health care practitioners, and other specialists may find it necessary to learn to communicate in a sign language to better serve their diverse clientele.
Tips for Learning ASL – How do you get started?
Consider a number of useful tips this article will walk you through. Also, discover interesting facts about ASL, learn how to sign the most commonly used words and phrases, and find external links to some useful resources.
1. Start early.
Language acquisition starts at the early months of a child’s development, so the sooner the child is exposed to learning a sign language, the better are the chances for strong communication skills. This will ease the sign language learning process for the kid and provide additional confidence as he/she grows up.
You can explore the topic more on the official website of National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). The same tip works with those who want to begin learning ASL on their own. An early start and a smart planning will make ASL acquisition a walk in the park. However, in the end it is important to get started at all, isn’t it?
2. Start small.
Dream big, but to save you from frustration and fear of failure, start slowly. Make a list of most necessary words and phrases including signs for expressing time, different locations, numbers, colors, emotions, foods, drinks, etc. Check the following two resources for the 100 essential signs and most used words in ASL. Willingness and persistence will have the rest go painlessly and successfully.
3. Learn to finger-spell. Just in case.
You will not use finger-spelling in conversing with people (except for signing your name), but at times you will find it extremely helpful as you come across a word you don’t know the sign for. Each letter of the alphabet is finger-spelled in a specific way. A short guide to finger-spelling should be useful here.
4. Make use of technology.
Gadgets are part of our lives; why not to use them to our benefit? For obvious reasons, audio and visual features help to make ASL learning as seamless as possible. Download applications that will be at hand every time, everywhere.
Whether you go for a free app or decide to purchase one, check Google Play and Apple App Store carefully – the existing ranking and feedback from customers will lead you to an informed decision. Look for apps that gained at least 4-star reviews to have a quality app installed on your mobile device.
New Mexico School for the Deaf created an extensive list of free and purchasable apps to assist anyone in learning ASL. Here you will find apps for kids (including low vision/blind kids), adults, as well as useful books to download.
5. Practice makes it perfect. Socialize!
Always aim for meetups. To improve your comprehension and speed in ASL communication, find partners to practice the language with. Make active use of everything you learn from dictionaries, study guides and videos.
Socialize with the community of deaf people and get to know cultural peculiarities you will not uncover otherwise. Remember that language is inseparable from culture, and familiarity with the Deaf community will ease language acquisition and adaptation processes.
- ASL is the third most widely used language in the U.S., English and Spanish being the first two ones.
- While in spoken language the words are formed by combining vowels and consonants, in the sign language they are formed from different signs – hand movements, hand locations, handshapes. The Dictionary of American Sign Language lists “18-19 handshapes, 24 movements, and 12 locations”.
- To communicate effectively and ensure safety, scuba divers use sign language under water.
- It might be helpful to know that usually the lowercase “deaf” is used to describe the condition of not hearing, while uppercase “Deaf” refers to culture and a specific group of people who communicate in ASL.
Before introducing some most commonly used words and phrases in ASL, let’s look into basic sentence types and signing peculiarities. Sentences help us accomplish three main things: make a statement, ask a question, or give a command. To convey these grammatical meanings, we usually use intonation in spoken languages, while sign language uses non-manual forms of communication.
When asking a question, a sign language user raises his eyebrows, widens his eyes, or moves his head, body, shoulders. When giving a command, you should sign in a faster and sharper manner, or, conversely, deliberately produce the sign in a slower manner than usual. Besides, when telling someone to do something you should look directly at the person you are talking to.
Time to learn the most common phrases and words and the ways they are signed.
Yes – To give a positive answer, raise the fist of your hand and bend it up and down at the wrist. It should remind you of a head nodding “yes”.
No – For a negative answer, raise your hand, and then join the thumb, the index finger and the middle finger together. To give it more emphasis you can also shake your head with this motion.
Thank you – To say a thank you, simply take your flat hand near your lips and move it forward and then towards the person you are thanking.
Hello – To salute someone, you will need to keep your fingers close, move your hand up, your thumb across your forehead, and then extend your hand away from your body. Don’t forget to smile ☺
Good-bye – Most probably you already use this gesture. Simply open your palm, then fold your fingers and open them again.
My name is … – You should spell the words one by one. For “my”, place your hand on your chest. For “name”, put your index and middle fingers of your dominant hand together, keeping the index finger on top. Do the same with your other hand. Now place the fingers of your dominant hand on top of your other hand and tap twice lightly. Afterwards, fingerspell your name (remember to pause if you are spelling your full name).
Sorry – Put your fist on your chest and rub it in a circular motion. The sign can also be used to express “regret” and “apology”.
Help – Make a fist with your hand, keeping your thumb up, and place it on the other outstretched hand. Now lift both hands up.
- The Clerc Center compiled a list of schools and programs for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
- If you are looking for extracurricular ASL materials, Handspeak will provide a wide range of resources related to learning, translation and fingerspelling, as well as Deaf culture.
- Video lessons on Deafined website will help you learn ASL at your own pace.
- ASL PRO is a useful website with a rich online dictionary, where you can search for words and find the corresponding videos for each word.
- Visit the following website to learn how to fingerspell: ASL Fingerspelling Practice Site
- If you love learning online and interacting with online communities, check out websites that offer MOOCs or read our blog post on the best online course platforms.
(Massive Online Open Courses): EdX, Coursera, Udemy, etc. An example is the American Sign Language course provided by Udemy which teaches the basics to communicate in ASL. At the end of the course you should be able to tell a short story using ASL.
How to Learn American Sign Language – Summary
The word “communication” derives from the Latin word “communico” meaning “sharing, imparting”. We share to be effective in our interactions. We give and receive. We wake up to the fact that diversity is all around us, and each community has its own way of sharing information – be it verbal or non-verbal.
As the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks puts it, “sign language is the equal of speech”, so by mastering a sign language we learn a new language and widen our opportunities to connect with others. Start exploring the amazing world of signs, and you will take a step closer to the deaf and hard-of-hearing people, their vision of life, their dynamic, rich, and unique culture.
What is your experience? Feel free to share your tips on how to learn American Sign Language (ASL) in the comments below.