DISCOVER: How to Learn Sign Language

Four photos of individuals learning sign language

NOTE FROM MARY: This is the second post of a four-part series related to the WCAG 2.1 Guideline Success Criterion 1.2.6 Sign Language (Prerecorded) (Level AAA). Though not currently required, adopting Level AAA guidelines now and going forward can provide a better user experience for persons with disabilities.

by Emma Mankin
Guest Blogger

Did you know that American Sign Language (ASL) is the third most-used language in the United States, behind English and Spanish?

Have you ever wanted to learn sign language? Now, you can! Here are some easy ways to help you start learning sign language.

  • Take a sign language class: ASL is taught as a foreign language in many American high schools and colleges. Having Deaf teachers and/or students as language models in the classroom will help you learn about the language from a cultural background. If you have a busy schedule during the weekdays, you can even take an evening or online ASL class. This allows you to learn and practice signing as much as you want without feeling pressured with deadlines.
  • Watch online sign language videos and DVDs or download applications on your phone: In today’s technologically savvy world, there are free videos on YouTube and other signing websites and phone applications, such as Signing Savvy, Handspeak, and Pocket Sign, that can watch as many times as you want to help you learn and practice fingerspelling, signs, expressive and conversational skills, and more. Many ASL workbooks, such as DawnSignPress’ Signing Naturally, include DVDs that you can watch as you teach yourself each lesson. If you would like to find other options, please contact your local library, or research available resources online.
  • Read sign language books: If you don’t want start by watching videos, sign language books are a great way to read about how it is used around the world. The history of how signed language and Deaf culture have evolved is fascinating! There are sign language dictionaries, children’s books, step-by-step learning books, and more. However, drawn handshapes with directions may not be as helpful as watching videos.
  • Attend Deaf events or cafés: These are great ways to practice your signing skills outside of your class and individual studies. You’ll meet plenty of Deaf people, ASL students, teachers, and more, in your local Deaf community. Everyone you meet at Deaf events is willing to help you practice and improve your signing skills as you communicate with them. You can contact local Deaf organizations or search for an ASL social group through websites such as Facebook or Meetup.com. Here is a list of deaf-owned restaurants as well.
  • Hire a private certified sign language tutor: If you don’t want to take an ASL class, you can research and hire a local private tutor who can help you learn the language. You can ask for one-on-one or group instruction if your family and/or friends would like to learn sign language, too.
  • Ask Deaf friends or family members to teach you: If you have Deaf friends and/or family members who are fluent signers, consider them to be great resources! As personal teachers, they will help you learn and practice signing, as well as teach you what being Deaf is like from a cultural perspective.
  • Watch and mimic sign language interpreters: If you have ever been to or watched live events, you have probably seen sign language interpreters before. Their job is to interpret spoken language into signed language for deaf and hard of hearing audience members. It may not be the best option as you are first learning, but depending on their signing speed, you can always watch them to test your knowledge and try to learn some new signs.

Once you’ve found your preferred way(s) to learn sign language, here are three key things to remember:

  1. Practice your fingerspelling: This will be one of your first lessons. Proficiency in expressive skills (spelling out) is more attainable than receptive skills (reading fingerspelling) at first. After you learn and master fingerspelling, you are ready to move on to the next levels of signing!
  2. Facial expressions are important: Sign language is more than just talking with your hands. You must also use your facial expressions, eyebrows, and other body movements to indicate the mood and character of your topics and conversations.
  3. Use real-life situations: As previously mentioned in the Deaf event point, practice your conversational signing skills with your teachers, classmates, friends, family, and other members of the Deaf world. As a result, you will gain a greater means of identity, interaction, values, customs, and information by meeting and communicating with other members of the Deaf community.

By learning ASL, you are bound to learn a lot and make new friends as you navigate a new and exciting language and culture. Happy signing!

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BIO: Emma Mankin is a freelance blog and technical writer located in St. Augustine, Florida who specializes in explaining technical topics so that they are easy to understand. She holds a B.A. in English with a minor in American Sign Language from George Mason University. Email Emma.

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