Signs of the Times: Learning American Sign Language

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By Emily Carter

American Sign Language, or ASL, is used by approximately one million people across the United States and some parts of Canada. However, the language isn’t exclusive to deaf and hard of hearing people; hearing people can use ASL as well.

What is ASL?

“American Sign Language is like any other language really. It has [its]own grammar rules. It has its own syntax and cultural envelopment. You also have people who sign in certain ways. Typically, it’s used in America… but also [in]Canada, but it’s not international,” said Brian Leffler, an American Sign Language
lecturer at the University of Georgia.

Different countries and regions around the world have their own versions or variations of sign language. Experts think there are around 135 types of sign language used around the world. According to Sign Language Interpreter for Prince William County Schools Tracey Mann-Gramajo, ASL is most similar to French Sign Language, because both languages use only one hand to sign the alphabet. Other languages, such as British Sign Language, use two hands to spell. Other countries’ signs may also differ from ASL
as well.

“It’s not all on your hands… There’s a lot of body movement and non-manual markers… [There’s] different facial expressions that can differentiate between [words],” said Mann-Gramajo.

Why You Should Use ASL

Learning ASL can bridge the gap between hearing and deaf people. Just because someone is fluent in English doesn’t mean they can clearly communicate between someone who is deaf and hard of hearing. ASL is its own beautiful language completely separate from English or other spoken languages.

“It’s really quite different [from]spoken words or, linear languages such as sound-based languages. So, the brain really does differentiate [between visual and spoken language],” Leffler said. “So, let’s say if a hearing person is to learn using another part of their brain, which is really neat, then you can go ahead and talk pretty much underwater. So that’s a bonus…you could pretty much speak with other people using that method. So really the language itself, it’s pretty much poetry. It’s really beautiful, and it can’t even compare to the English language in general.”

Sign language can also be helpful in situations where it would be difficult to speak with others.

“I wish that my family knew sign language, because you know when you’re brushing your teeth and you want to say something… and you can’t, or you’re eating and have food in your mouth. You’re at an event and across the room you want to tell somebody something. It just makes life easier if you know sign language; you can communicate when spoken language isn’t an option,” Mann-Gramajo said.

Where to Learn ASL

American Sign Language is taught at some schools but isn’t counted as a foreign language. If you’re interested in learning American Sign Language, here are a few places that help you learn the language as
well as information about the deaf community.

Northern Virginia Community College is offering ASL 101, that teaches basic vocabulary, syntax, fingerspelling and grammatical non-manual signals. The class also gives students an overview of the
culture and insight into the deaf community. Currently, the class is taking place on Zoom. The college also offers other courses that focus on number spelling, interacting with members of the deaf community and literature from the deaf community.

Signing Online is a website that teaches students ASL and offers different courses depending on your knowledge of ASL. Each course has lessons that can teach people anything from the basics to interacting with deaf people. Signing Online also offers an exam at the end of each course to make sure you’re retaining the material.

If you’re interested in learning American Sign Language but don’t want to drop a whole lot of cash, Sign Language 101 is an online course that offers free videos on their website with lessons and learning materials for a fraction of the cost of most courses. As of right now, the website only has level one lessons, teaching basic vocabulary, but they have plans to add more advanced lessons soon for their students.

After you’ve taken a few classes in ASL and want to practice the language, Mann-Gramajo recommends having conversations in ASL with members of the deaf and hard of hearing community. “The best advice I can give [someone]is to go out into the deaf community. Find deaf events to interact with people who use sign language on a regular basis as their first language. The best way to learn a language and become fluent is to get out there and use it,” Mann-Gramajo said.

Some, but not all, members of the deaf community rely on lipreading when communicating with people who aren’t familiar with sign language. Since people are wearing masks due to the coronavirus pandemic, one would think it would be difficult to have a conversation. Leffler says this isn’t the case for him.

“I don’t actually rely on lip-reading… I actually try to avoid lip reading. Technology is really helping us out [with]accessibility. So I typically rely on my phone, but there are some Deaf people and hard of hearing people that do rely on lip reading. And I can imagine that for some of them, [it may be]a challenge for them,” Leffler said.

Learning American Sign Language may be difficult at first but practice makes perfect. If you have wanted to learn ASL but have been on the fence about it, this is your sign to start.

Emily Carter is a senior at Virginia Tech majoring in Multimedia Journalism. She is currently the Lifestyles Editor at Virginia Tech’s student-run paper, the Collegiate Times. When she is not writing, she is either dancing alone to Taylor Swift or cooking herself a giant bowl of pasta.


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