Why Do Deaf Sign Differently To Me?

“I want to sign like a Deaf person. I want to learn ASL. But when Deaf people sign to me, it seems they use English signs.” This is a common question. Deaf culture includes a concept called “Code Switching,” which means they sign back to you with the same “version” of sign language they see you using. This can be considered polite and proper. It is also a way to try to avoid miscommunication.

How can you get Deaf people to teach you ASL? Realize that Deaf people are individuals. Not everyone uses sign language the same way. Also, ASL is not taught to Deaf people the same way English is taught to the hearing. Most learn it from others, not in a classroom. You will notice much variation in the way Deaf signers produce language.
Methods to Learn ASL From Deaf People:

1. Take a class from a Deaf instructor. Many colleges offer ASL courses. Some community centers, libraries, or other organizations offer Deaf-led courses.

2. Observe. Go to Deaf events and watch Deaf people signing. Use your eyes more than your ears. Forget English and think visually. Of course, make sure they see you and it is okay to watch. (No spies allowed!)

3. Ask questions. Learn basic ASL questions such as, “Sign mean what (shrug)?” “(Finger-spelled-word) sign what (shrug)?” “Again (question mark on face).”

4. Use ASL. Some people are afraid to try to sign to a Deaf person until they know ASL well. But you will never learn ASL well until you use your signs, make many mistakes, laugh about your mistakes, and have Deaf people critique you. Practice makes permanent.

When Deaf people sign English to you, try to change YOUR signs to use more ASL. Eventually, they may use ASL with you and may ignore that you are “hearing.”