How To Learn Sign Language: A Primer

how to learn sign languageSign language has a rich and storied past–in fact, thanks to Plato, we know that it was being used in deaf communities as far back as the year 5 BCE–though it’s very likely it goes back even further! After all, one of the most basic human needs is communication, and sign language, or simply “sign”, is uniquely qualified to meet that need. Many people mistakenly believe that sign language is a kind of pantomime, but really, nothing could be further from the truth. Sign language is as much a  standalone language as any spoken one, and American Sign Language, or ASL, has even been characterized as being in the “creole” language family because of its morphology. There are multiple sign languages that encompass nearly every region of the world, and each has its own dialects, nuances, body language, and iconicity! People are quickly beginning to appreciate that sign language is a major part of deaf culture and as a result, the number of people who communicate in sign is growing.

If you’re hoping to learn sign language, you aren’t alone. Many people use sign as a second language–in the wake of hearing loss, for instance, or to converse with friends and family who are deaf or hard of hearing, or just because it is a beautiful way to communicate. If you’re wondering how to learn sign language, the best way to go about it is to just dive right in! We’ll go over the basics here to give you a jumping off point, and by the time you’re done, you will very likely be hooked! First things first, though: you will find that sign language requires a clear understanding of body language–more on that below–so don’t forget to keep that in mind as you work through every stage of learning sign.

The ABCs Of Sign: Fingerspelling

One of the things that makes sign language so learner friendly is that it has a unique alphabet. When you’re exploring how to learn sign language yourself, it’s a really good idea to master the fingerspelling alphabet first. Why? Well, sign language has an entire vocabulary and a very unique way of stringing words together. A lot of times, when we’re learning a language, we get caught up in rote memorization and vocabulary drills, and if we’re not progressing as fast as we’d like, it’s easy to get discouraged. With sign language, once you know the fingerspelling alphabet, you don’t need to worry about getting stuck! While you are learning signed vocabulary, you can spell out unfamiliar words if they don’t come to you right away, which means that you’re staying on track towards your ultimate goal. Later, the fingerspelling alphabet comes in handy for people’s names and words that don’t quite translate from spoken English to sign. The other benefit to learning fingerspelling first is that it will give you an idea of how you need to move your fingers and hands. You’ll realize quickly that sign requires a lot of dexterity! If it seems a little elementary, that’s no reason to feel silly! After all, fingerspelling is as important to first-time signers as the alphabet is to first-time speakers.

Exercises: 

  • Practice running through the alphabet, first on one hand, then on the other. This will give you a feel for the letters and help you warm up for the more in-depth stuff. You’re going to need both hands!
  • Stand in front of a mirror and practice spelling your name. Paired with a few introductory signs, this is how you’ll introduce yourself. One day, you might even get a name sign to use!
  • While you watch television or read a book, choose one word every few sentences to fingerspell. This will let you practice putting other letters together, and you’ll soon find that you’re spelling faster and faster.

Manual Signs: Vocabulary

Learning the vocabulary of sign language means that you will be going back to the very beginning–elementary signs. Just as a single spoken word can be broken into sounds and letters, a single sign can be broken into four crucial elements:

  • handshape- this is the shape your hand takes to form a sign
  • orientation- the way your sign is oriented; which direction it is facing
  • location- where you sign; the “sign-space” around your body, for example, near your face or abdomen
  • movement-some signs are stationary, others involve movement, for example, making an arc or twist

 It is important to have a firm grasp on very basic signs, because many words and phrases are built upon those signs and acquire a different meaning by changing one or all of the sign’s elements or by creating compound signs. Let’s look at a few examples:

Changing A Sign’s Element 

Placement or orientation can change the entire meaning of a signed word, or give a single sign new life as a completely new sign. For instance, let’s consider the sign “think”. To make this sign, you simply extend the index finger on your dominant hand and press it to your temple. The sign for “disappoint” is very like the sign for think. The handshape, movement, and orientation are all the same. But by changing the location–touching your chin instead of your temple–you’ve turned “think” into “disappoint”.

Compound Signs versus Compound Words 

Both compound signs and compound words exist in sign language. You might be wondering, what’s the difference? Well, you can think of a compound word sign as you would a spoken word. For instance, “homework”. When spoken, the two words, “home” and “work” come together to form one new word with a new meaning. That is also true for the sign, “homework”. You would first sign “home” with your fingers curved to meet your thumb on one hand, touching first the lips and then moving back to the cheek. Without pausing, you would then sign “work” by making fists with your hands and  tapping your wrists together. This is one whole sign, just as “homework” is one whole word.

A compound sign, on the other hand, is comprised of two signs that mean something entirely new, and are not always literal translations. Think of the word “dinner” in English. You simply say the word, and it has an inherent meaning–the meal you eat at night. In sign, you combine the sign for “eat” (pressing the pad of your thumb to the pads of your fingers and bringing your hand to your lips) with the sign for “night” (holding your non-dominant hand out horizontally and bringing your cupped dominant hand to rest over your knuckles). It also becomes one whole sign, just as dinner is one whole word.

You can see why you’ll need lots of basic signs while you’re figuring out how to learn sign language! Of course, as with any language, you’ll need to practice your vocabulary until it’s committed to memory. A course that teaches you how to unlock that part of your brain can make memorization totally painless.

Exercises:  

  • Learn some very basic signs; greetings, household items, colors, even animals, and practice them in the mirror until they feel natural.
  • Just as you did with fingerspelling, replace a word in every sentence with a sign.
  • Once you’ve mastered a sign, like “think” see how changing orientation, location, or movement changes the sign, or see which compound signs it can create.

Putting it Together: Grammar

Grammar, as you probably already know, is a set of rules that dictates how a language comes together. To take it a step further, syntax is the way a sentence is arranged–its word order, among other things. When you’re discovering how to learn sign language, you’ll find that it has an easy set of grammar rules to follow, and a very free-form syntax arrangement. It’s also very streamlined, as you’ll see in the examples below.

In spoken English, words are typically ordered with subject first, followed by the verb, and finally the object. If you haven’t had an English class in awhile, no problem! Let’s take a look at how that looks in a sentence:

“The fish swims in water”

In this case, “the fish” is the subject, “swims in” is the verb, and “water” is the object. Pretty simple, right? Well, it gets simpler. Let’s look at how you can say that same sentence using sign language. You could sign:

FISH-SWIM-WATER

or

FISH-WATER-SWIM

or

WATER-SWIM-FISH

They all mean the same thing, “The fish swims in water”! As you’ll see in the next section, sign language puts a lot of emphasis on expression and body language to help color it with meaning as opposed to complicated grammar rules–it is very forgiving!

Exercises: 

  • Practice putting sentences together, using different sign orders to see which you think makes the most sense.
  • Watch a movie that’s acted in sign (there’s actually quite a few!) and see if you can piece the dialogue together. As you increase your vocabulary, you’ll notice that this comes more easily!

Adding Context: Expression and Body Language

As we mentioned before, body language, gesture, and facial expression are all absolutely crucial when it comes to how to learn sign language. One of the wonderful things about sign is that you are using your entire body to “speak” it–that makes it easy to immerse yourself in the language. A sign isn’t just the shape and movement you make with your hands, it’s a sigh or a smile, or the way you hold your body. You might slump when you want to tell someone that you’re tired, or pout if you’re relaying a sad anecdote. Perhaps you will make a shocked expression if you’re gossiping, or open up your entire frame to relay excitement. This isn’t new, of course–you likely do this already when you speak to your friends and family.

In sign, however, these nuances must be magnified. They are their own vocabulary, which is why you may need to “relearn” expressions and gestures to integrate them into your second language. You might be surprised at how body language can be broken down; from posture to microexpressions, each movement is almost a language all its own, and learning about every facet will help you communicate effectively in ASL.

Exercises: 

  • In the mirror, put your hands at your sides. Before you begin to sign, think about how to relay what you want to say using facial expressions and body language alone and practice those movements.
  • When you’re ready to sign, look at your face in the mirror instead of your hands. Sometimes, we can get so caught up in getting our signs right that the only expression we make is one of intense concentration!

These are just the first steps that make up the entire journey of how to learn sign language–by now, you can see how sign language is a nuanced and beautiful language in its own right and will require many of the same techniques you might employ learning any  other language. You can definitely get where you want to be, and confidence is key! Multitask with a course in confidence building body language techniques, and who knows? Maybe one day you’ll have the sign language skills to begin teaching others with an online tutoring business or class! Just keep at it, and soon your fingers will be doing all the talking!