Learn to Sign From Deaf People

Have you ever wondered how Deaf people learn sign language? Hearing people must take English classes through all of their schooling, but most Deaf people may never have taken a class in ASL. Historically, in residential schools for the Deaf, it has been said that students taught students to sign. Some deaf students in oralist schools learned sign language in secret, as it was forbidden. They probably did not sit in a class as hearing ASL students do today. Nor would they have said, “This is hard.” They simply imitated the language they saw, much as a person moving to a foreign country would do. Most ASL Interpreter Training Programs (ITPs) require a certain number of hours of interaction with Deaf people. The reason is clear – it is best to learn ASL from a person who uses it well.

Note: Not all Deaf people use ASL. Beware of “code switching,” a cultural adaptation in which Deaf people use more English when communicating with a non-ASL user.

One helpful rule which I have used successfully is the 3-person & 3-location rule. When I see a new sign or grammar structure, I try not to use it until having seen it in 3 different situations, preferably by 3 different signers.

Become a language detective. Use your ASL with an ASL-using Deaf person. Be willing to learn from your mistakes. Accept constructive criticism, especially when learning new signs. Ask questions. Be willing to accept regional sign variations. For example, a sign that is appropriate in Georgia may be offensive in Arizona (which actually happened to me). Finally, show interest in Deaf people, not just their language.

ASL cannot be learned fully from a book or video. Personal communication is required. Use the signs and language you learn. You will learn faster and better.