American Sign Language, also known as ASL, is more than just a way of communication—it’s a fully-fledged language with its own syntax, grammar, and idioms. It is primarily used by the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities across the United States and Canada.
ASL is not a derivative of English or any other spoken language. It has its origins in the early 19th century with the inception of the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. From then onwards, ASL evolved into a distinct language that serves as the backbone of the Deaf community’s rich and vibrant culture.
For individuals with normal hearing capabilities, learning ASL may seem unusual at first. However, it can be a rewarding experience and an enriching skill to acquire. This article will guide you through the process of learning ASL as a hearing person.
The Need for Hearing People to Learn ASL
Encouraging Inclusion and Diversity
ASL plays a critical role in promoting inclusion and diversity. As a hearing person, learning ASL can help bridge the communication gap between you and the Deaf or Hard of Hearing individuals, fostering an inclusive environment. Inclusion, after all, is not about merely coexisting but communicating effectively with diverse groups of people.
Benefits in Personal and Professional Life
ASL can enhance both your personal and professional life. From a career perspective, knowledge of ASL can open up opportunities in fields such as special education, interpreting, and social work. It can also be beneficial in emergency situations where conventional communication may not be feasible.
Getting Started with ASL
Embarking on your ASL learning journey can be an exciting experience, brimming with anticipation and curiosity. The process is akin to learning any new language, requiring dedication, patience, and regular practice.
Initial Steps in the ASL Journey
As a beginner, the first step is to cultivate an understanding and respect for Deaf culture. Language is not just a communication tool; it is a reflection of the community and culture that uses it. Familiarize yourself with the history, norms, and values of the Deaf community to gain a deeper appreciation for ASL.
Next, start with the fundamentals. Learning ASL begins with understanding its basic building blocks—the alphabet and numbers.
Essential ASL Alphabet and Numbers
In ASL, each letter of the alphabet has a unique handshape. You use one hand to form these shapes. Finger-spelling is the act of spelling out words by using signs that correspond to the letters of the word.
ASL numbers are also represented by unique handshapes, typically formed with one hand. However, numbers 10 and above are usually shown using combinations or specific sign movements.
Understanding and memorizing the ASL alphabet and numbers forms the basis for your future learning. As you learn more signs and start forming sentences, you will find yourself still relying on finger-spelling to communicate certain concepts or names. Here are a few tips to enhance your learning experience:
- Use visual aids like flashcards, charts, or ASL alphabet apps.
- Practice regularly to increase your hand flexibility and memorization.
- Try to recognize the shape of each letter and number without looking at a reference.
Basic ASL Vocabulary and Phrases
As you become comfortable with finger-spelling and numbers, it’s time to move onto ASL vocabulary and phrases. The goal is to be able to express yourself and understand others in everyday conversations.
Commonly Used Signs and Phrases
The foundation of any language lies in its basic vocabulary. Familiarize yourself with common ASL signs and phrases. Some essential phrases include “Hello”, “Thank you”, “Sorry”, “Yes”, “No”, and so on. You should also learn signs for everyday items like “book”, “car”, “eat”, “drink”, “home”, etc.
Use ASL phrasebooks or dictionaries to learn and practice these signs. Watching video demonstrations can also be extremely helpful as it allows you to understand the correct handshape, movement, and facial expressions associated with each sign.
Practical ASL in Everyday Communication
Once you have a grasp of basic vocabulary, it’s essential to apply your knowledge in real-life situations. Try to incorporate ASL into your daily routine as much as possible. This could be as simple as signing the names of items while grocery shopping or using ASL phrases in your conversations at home. This practice not only reinforces your learning but also gradually builds your confidence and fluency in the language.
ASL Grammar Basics
Learning ASL is not just about memorizing signs. It involves understanding the unique grammar rules that govern this language. ASL grammar is distinct from English grammar, so it’s important to approach it with an open mind and willingness to adapt.
Sentence Structure in ASL
One key aspect of ASL grammar is its sentence structure. Unlike English, which follows a Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) structure, ASL often uses a Topic-Comment structure. For example, instead of saying “I am going to the park” (SVO), you would sign “PARK I GO” (Topic-Comment) in ASL.
It’s also important to note that ASL is a visual language, and spatial grammar plays a significant role. You can set up people or places in the space around you and refer back to them throughout a conversation.
Non-manual Signals and Facial Expressions
In ASL, your facial expressions and body language, also known as non-manual signals, carry as much information as the signs you make. These non-manual markers can indicate question forms, negations, or the intensity of adjectives.
For instance, raising your eyebrows while signing indicates a yes/no question, while furrowing your eyebrows indicates a wh- question (who, what, where, when, why). Understanding and accurately using non-manual signals is crucial for clear communication in ASL.
Incorporating ASL into Daily Routine
As the old saying goes, “Practice makes perfect.” This holds true for ASL as well. Incorporating ASL into your daily routine is one of the most effective ways to master the language.
Practicing ASL Regularly
Set aside dedicated time each day to practice your ASL skills. You can pick a new topic each day—like food, family, or hobbies—and learn the associated signs. Use this vocabulary throughout the day to reinforce your learning.
Remember, ASL is not just about signing—it’s also about understanding. Watch ASL videos, movies, or news broadcasts to improve your comprehension skills. Try to understand the signs without relying on subtitles.
Tips for Memory Retention
Memory retention can be a challenge when learning a new language. Here are some strategies to enhance your memory:
- Use flashcards: Write the English word on one side and the ASL sign on the other.
- Watch and mimic ASL videos: This helps improve your hand coordination and comprehension.
- Practice in front of a mirror: This allows you to observe your facial expressions and sign formation.
- Teach others: Sharing your ASL knowledge with friends or family can solidify your own understanding.
Learning Resources for ASL
Recommended Books and Online Courses
There are several books and online courses designed for beginners learning ASL. Some popular resources include the book “Signing Naturally” and online platforms like Lifeprint and Sign Language 101.
Role of ASL Apps and Websites
ASL apps and websites offer interactive learning experiences. Apps often come with video tutorials, quizzes, and other useful features to support your learning journey.
Addressing Common Struggles for Beginners
It’s natural to face challenges when learning a new language. With ASL, some common struggles include mastering the speed of signs, understanding facial expressions, and getting the grammar right. Patience and regular practice can help overcome these obstacles.
Strategies for Overcoming Learning Obstacles
- Slow down: Don’t rush the learning process. It’s better to learn at a steady pace.
- Practice with others: Join ASL practice groups or find a signing buddy.
- Keep a positive mindset: Mistakes are part of the learning process.
Social Interactions in ASL
Importance of Deaf Culture Awareness
ASL is deeply embedded in Deaf culture. Being aware of Deaf culture norms and etiquette is essential to respectful and meaningful communication.
Proper Etiquette in ASL Conversation
Some etiquette norms include maintaining eye contact, not interrupting when someone is signing, and avoiding excessive body movement as it can be distracting.
Progress Assessment in ASL Learning
Regular self-assessment is crucial to track your progress. You can record your signing and review it or have a proficient ASL user provide feedback.
Tracking ASL Skill Development
Journals are a good way to document your progress. Note down new signs learned, difficulties faced, and areas of improvement.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Long Does It Take to Learn ASL?
The time it takes to learn ASL varies depending on your dedication and practice. However, consistent study over several months can lead to a good understanding of the basics.
Can I Learn ASL Online?
Yes, you can learn ASL online. There are numerous resources including online courses, video tutorials, and mobile apps available.
Is ASL Similar to British Sign Language (BSL)?
No, ASL and BSL are different. While they share a few signs, they have different syntax and grammar.
Learning ASL as a hearing person is a journey filled with opportunities for growth, understanding, and communication. The skills you acquire can be transformative, opening doors to new personal and professional avenues.
At the heart of ASL lies the essence of humanity—connection. This language, steeped in rich history and culture, serves as a conduit to connect with the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities on a deeper level.
Your path to learning ASL is sure to be a rewarding endeavor. From mastering basic signs to understanding complex grammar, every step you take brings you closer to becoming proficient in this unique and expressive language. The journey may be challenging, but the rewards—both tangible and intangible—are worth the effort.