Let’s face it. Learning a foreign language isn’t exactly easy to do. To successfully become fluent in, say, German, one must not only learn the vocabulary, but study the grammar, the culture, and the history of the language as well. The same thing goes for American Sign Language (ASL), the language used by many, many deaf people and others—including the Deaf Culture, CODAs (Children of Deaf Adults), teachers, interpreters, and more. If you’re reading this, thinking, “Duh,” then you may be surprised just how many would-be signers/students don’t know this.
I remember a time my husband, Kenny, introduced me to a person who was looking to become a certified sign language interpreter. After Kenny introduced me to him, the student started waving his hands in the air and occasionally slapping himself in the face or grabbing his groin like Michael Jackson. Whether he screeched when he did this is anyone’s guess. I didn’t ask and Kenny didn’t tell. Thank you, God. But Kenny did help the disturbed guy translate what the perverse movements meant: “I don’t really need a lot of help. As you can see, I’m pretty good at it already. Whoo-hoo (there went the groin again)!” My last reaction was to laugh so hard I spit in his face. Once I calmed down a bit, I was able to ask him a few questions to help me know where he was in his studies.
I started signing and talking at the same time (using Contact Sign) so he could understand me:
ME: So, uh…where have you studied in the past?
HIM: Actually, I haven’t really needed to do anything formal. As you can see, I pick things up fairly fast and easily (smacking himself on the cheek and blinking his eyes as if he were about to have a seizure).
ME: Oh…kay. Hmm. Do you know any Deaf people whom you can practice with?
HIM: Not really. I’ve seen a few in the grocery store and I think there’s one at my church. I honestly haven’t talked to any except you. I want to be fluent before I have to go face-to-face with one.
ME: Why’s that?
HIM: Well, they’re kinda scary. I mean, not you, but the others I’ve seen. They don’t even talk. I mean, who doesn’t talk? Isn’t that like a requirement when you’re out in public?
I stopped the questions about that time. I didn’t really want to ask him anything else. I was already convinced he needed a lot more than ASL classes. Perhaps some antipsychotic medication and an imaginary dragon to play with would help.
So, I didn’t get very far with that guy. Even inviting him to one of my Sign Language classes was met with an interesting retort “You mean sit around with people who don’t know anything about deaf people? Wouldn’t that just be a waste of my time?” No reply from me was necessary.
Now, experiences like this one are not as rare as you might think. In fact, I would say that at least 1/3 of the people in the world who want to learn ASL think it’s nothing more than pantomime and funny faces. I must object and make it clear that learning ASL is not any easier than any other foreign language out there. And if you want to interpret, you must be fluent and certified with the state (or nationally certified if you are wiling to go the extra mile). I decided to let all of you know five of the best ways to learn this language—ASL or Contact Sign—and I hope you’ll take to my suggestions willingly.
5. Study ASL users online. The first thing you should do when you are thinking of learning this beautiful and challenging language is to do some online searching. Go to www.Google.com or www.YouTube.com and type into the search line: American Sign Language. You will find more people using ASL than ever imagined. Be careful though. Some might say ASL, but actually be using Signed English—something you don’t want to confuse it with.
You can also find several sites to help you learn vocabulary:
Or practice your receptive fingerspelling (a must-learn part of the language):
4. Take a community sign language class. If you ask around, looking for an area sign language class, there will usually be something that can help. Just be sure to ask the person in charge if they are indeed teaching ASL or just Sign Language or Signed English. There’s nothing wrong with started out with Contact Sign as long as you know what you’re doing. CSL is basically ASL vocabulary in English word order. Many students start out with CSL, learning conceptually correct ASL vocabulary, but start learning the grammar and sentence structure later.
3. Enroll in a college interpreter’s program. This step is definitely the way to go if you’re serious about wanting to become a certified interpreter (and if you want to make money as an interpreter, you’ll need to be certified). Just be sure to study the programs goals and attitudes about both ASL and Deaf Culture. Not all interpreters program are as helpful as you might think. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean it’s what you’re looking for. And please be sure that the classes are taught by Deaf teachers with experience (your best bet) or Certified ASL interpreters. Also keep in mind that a deaf teacher doesn’t guarantee fluency in ASL. There are millions of deafies out there who became deaf as an adult and really don’t know anything about the things you need to learn.
2. Find a mentor. Ahhh…If only every student could do this! You’ll have to put in some effort to find the right person for you, but it’ll be worth your time. You’ll want to call around to local interpreting agencies, ASL programs and the deaf community to find someone. Make sure they are skilled and are OK with you hanging out with them and observing their work or watching them chat with a skilled signer.
1. Get out there and socialize with the deaf community. I chose to list this one as the #1 way to learn ASL. Surprised? I’m not kidding you. You might be surprised at how many would-be students are terrified to actually hang out with deaf people! They’re too darn intimidated and they want to wait till they’re already good at it. Could it be that people like me go around with “I’ll kill you if you even try” sort of looks at all times? Even if that’s so, you have to force yourself. I mean, come on! If you want to learn ASL—to be an interpreter or for other reasons—wouldn’t you think that you have to get to know the community, too? Like it or not, getting out there is by far the most important step to being a part of the community. Period.
There you have it. Perhaps I’ve listed 1 or 2 that you never considered. I can understand that. Of course, if you have put yourself out in the community, you already completed the #1 rule. So good for you! Keep it up!
Everyone else out there whom are too scared to take a step or two: Just know that there are deaf people out there who know where you live. And if you don’t get your butt in gear and get out there and meet us in person, we’ll have to kill you.