As a teacher of American Sign Language, I am often approached by family members and friends of Deaf people or by ASL students wanting to know the best way to learn the language of American Sign Language. "Wow," I think. "What a loaded question!" I think it has a lot to do with why you want to learn (Do you have a deaf grandchild you want to communicate with or do you just think it's cool looking?), how serious you are (was this just a last-minute idea or have you been planning this seriously for a while?), and what resources are available to you (Do you have internet access readily available; are there Deaf events in your area, etc.?).
If you're serious and you know you'll be sticking with it, here are five great ways to start your journey...
1. BOOKS WITH DVD's WITH THEM -- This would be for the very beginner or as a refresher for those coming back to ASL after a hiatus. If you're just going for vocabulary at first, I strongly recommend "The Gallaudet University American Sign Language Dictionary." Gallaudet University is by far the top resource for Deaf Americans and their dictionary only proves this. If you want to get started with sentence structure right away, try "The American Sign Language Phrase Book," by Lou Fant and Barbara Berstein Fant. The latest edition has a DVD with it. The pictures aren't the greatest, but it's great to learn basic ASL sentence structure. There are many other good books as well. I recommend going to Harris Communications and looking through their available ASL books.
2. INTERNET COURSES -- If you have the time to sit at your computer and do Facebook, you certainly have time to learn some great ASL lessons off the internet. There are online dictionaries at ASL Pro and Signing Savvy, etc. Both of these have a plethora of vocab words to show you and ASL Pro even has phrases available. ASL pro is based out of Texas and Signing Savvy is based out of Michigan, so you might see slight differences. Truth is, you'll be meeting Deaf people from all over and so it's good to know as many variations of sign concepts as possible. You can also go to YouTube.com and type in "American Sign Language" and you'll get tons of basic sign language or you to learn. If you type in "Intermediate American Sign Language," you'll get some pretty good, more advanced videos. Be wary of who is signing on them. You don't want to learn from another student.
3. LIFEPRINT.COM -- I'm giving this site it's own number, because if there were a way to learn ASL strictly online, the ASL University is the forerunner in this department. Filled with vocabulary, history, Deaf Culture, numbering/lettering (beginners and advanced), phrases, videos, facts, and more, it's taught by Bill Vicars (a Deaf/HOH ASL user) who is personable and thorough. There's even ways to contact him for information (though you shouldn't need to since it's all on the site) and it gets very advanced as you go -- as slowly or quickly as possible. You can pay and do the curriculum with his help for credit or you can even self-teach yourself the curriculum (if you're highly motivated). Very worth your time to check it out!
4. IN-PERSON/COLLEGE CLASSES -- Sure, some high schools are starting to offer ASL at their facility (Yay!), but most classes worth taking are college or just in-person classes. Every class should be evaluated on its own though. Attend at your own risk. There are some amazing ASL Interpreter Training Programs around the country, but there are also programs that bomb. Before signing up for an ASL class, find out who the teacher is. Are they Deaf/HOH/hearing/certified interpreter/CODA/etc? How much experience does he or she have? Which curriculum do they use? Do they use their voice the entire time or so you get to have some silent signing at times? Be careful and get recommendations. But in-person training is by far the best way to go about learning the basics.
5. DEAF/HOH EVENTS -- After (or while) you learn Basic American Sign Language, it's time to venture out into the Deaf world and get to know some native and skilled signers in your neighborhood. Look in your yellow pages for Deaf service agencies -- they should be able to supply you with local meeting times and activities to whet your appetite. For example, here in West Michigan, there are Deaf nights at two different malls, coffee meet-ups, ASL movies, softball, dances and even galas! If you're looking to work on your receptive skills and practice your expressive skills, there's plenty of opportunities for this! So, don't be shy. Get out there and mingle. It may be the only way to make yourself into an advance American Sign Language user.