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Tips for Learning Sign Language

I failed my class, but you don't have to

Tips for Learning Sign Language

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Learning American Sign Language and proper deaf etiquette.

Over the winter I decided to take a class in American Sign Language (ASL). In my work with the hard of hearing I often encounter people signing, and I have long wanted to learn how to communicate at least the basics. I began a six-week course that met 2.5 hours once a week and was totally immersive — no spoken language allowed.

I failed it.

The first few classes were fun. We played guessing games to increase eye-brain speed. About a third of each class was devoted to deaf history (I did well in that) and deaf etiquette (which I didn't completely understand). Repeatedly, in class and in quizzes, we were told that if two deaf people are signing and you want to get past them, it is rude to walk around them. The proper etiquette is to walk right between them, without any acknowledgment that you are between them. I found this baffling, but it was beyond my ability to ask about the logic of it.

We did learn some basics, such as how to say "hello" and "goodbye" (just as you would in English, a hand signal of greeting and a little wave goodbye), "thank you" and "you're welcome." But the class worked better as an introduction for people who intended to go on to master ASL, since it included many vocabulary words I'm unlikely to ever use in my typical interaction (halter top?).

In the first few classes we learned terms for discussing extended family. For instance, "Is your cousin older than your brother?" "Who is her aunt?" "Are they divorced or separated?"

I found it hard enough to master father, mother, sister and brother.

And watching the teacher and then trying to repeat the signs is tricky: It's a mirror image. It reminded me of what they always say about Ginger Rogers: She did everything Astaire did, but backward and in heels. Also, my aging fingers are just not as flexible as those of my younger fellow students. My brain felt ever more boggled as the weeks went by.

At the end, I spoke to the teacher about whether I should repeat Level 1 or go on to Level 2, and he said I needed a private tutor. My confidence plummeted. But I didn't want to give up, so I began studying online.

Some words of advice if you're interested in learning ASL, from someone whose language skills haven't come easy:

Print out a free fingerspelling alphabet poster. Hang it above your desk and study it, then use William Vicars' Fingerspelling Practice — a test-yourself site that grows increasingly difficult. The words get longer, and the fingerspelling gets faster. It grows almost addictive; you can see how quickly you progress.

For conversation basics, go to Basic ASL: 100 Signs. The "student" in this video is a young woman who is competent but also charmingly modest and sometimes indecisive. (She made me feel better about myself.) There are many levels in this series that grow more challenging. You can also learn how to count.

The benefit of online learning is that you can do it in your own time. I try to spend 20 minutes a day on practice, and I'm improving. My brain is also becoming more flexible, and my hand-eye coordination has improved (it's made a noticeable difference in my tennis game).

I might have flunked my ASL class, but I'm not giving up on signing.

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