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What You Need to Know About Learning Sign Language

What You Need to Know About Learning Sign Language

  • Education
  • Student Tips
S.M. AudsleyApr 11, 2019

Your friend just came back from hiking to a spectacular vista: the sunset making glorious colors skate across the sky, black shadows of birds flitting by. The wind picked up and turned the leaves on the trees, floating some of them into the dusky air. Now, imagine your friend is describing all of this to you using her hands in rapid motion, making sweeping symbols and gestures -- using sign language.

Sign language is a language complete with nuance, the ability to describe feelings, thoughts, and emotions, as well as communicating with those who are “in the know,” those who know how to sign. Dr. Oliver Sacks, well-regarded for his books and research in neurology, said, "[...] I had to see this all for myself before I could be moved from my previous ‘medical’ view of deafness (as a condition, a deficit, that had to be ‘treated’) to a ‘cultural’ view of the deaf as forming a community with a complete language and culture of its own.” Sign language has its own rules of grammar and syntax just like any other language. And, the Deaf community has its own culture, too.

According to the British Deaf Association, deaf communities are vibrant places “where Deaf people who use sign language are traditionally drawn together through sharing news, experiences, activities and sports events. This creates a sense of belonging.”

Deaf, signified with a capital “D”, helps define this cultural, social, and linguistic group. However, the Deaf community is far from insular or lacking. In fact, deaf people meet each other the same way hearing people do -- in bars or pubs, at concerts, at clubs, at museums, etc. The only difference is that the 'talking' happens through signing. Learning sign language can allow access to a whole group of people -- and opportunities -- you might never have had the chance to get to know otherwise.

There are two main types of sign language in the English language -- British Sign Language (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL). The main difference is that BSL uses a two-handed alphabet and ASL uses a one-hand fingerspelling alphabet; their lexicons are also different. If you are interested in learning sign language it is important to know these differences when you select your online or in-person class.

Being proficient in sign language is an essential skill for some jobs and career tracks. It is particularly important to be skilled in sign language for positions that require a lot of interaction with the public. Nurses, doctors, policemen and women, flight attendants, and teachers are just a few examples of roles in the workforce where sign language could come in handy to be able to effectively communicate with those whom one is working.

In The Guardian, teacher Clare Gilbert explained how she came to understand the importance of learning sign language for her profession. Gilbert writes, “I have worked with children from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds, and with children with varying educational needs and abilities. I constantly adapt my teaching style, learning environment and activities to suit every child in my class. [...] I signed myself up to evening classes and achieved my Level 1 and 2 BSL of which I am extremely proud of. I am more aware of the challenges faced by deaf children and adults.”

Some career paths are directly linked to proficiency in sign language. You could become a sign language interpreter, a sign language translator, a sign language teacher, and many more highly skilled specialty professional jobs, which directly relate to learning sign language. The National Association for the Deaf attests that there is consistent demand for ASL interpreters especially in the following settings: “Educational interpreting K-12 and higher education settings; in the community, such as for doctor’s visits, court appearances, and business meetings; and for the provision of video relay services (VRS) and video remote interpreting (VRI) services.” Rebecca, from the UK, says that the ability to sign helped to progress in her career as a specialist speech and language therapist.

Anne Marie Sureau, an ASL interpreter from the United States, offers this advice to students considering a degree/course in sign language: "There are many opportunities to use ASL. Interpreting is only one of several. I have never known anyone who thought learning ASL was a waste of time, most wish they had studied it more, if anything. If you are someone who can't imagine seeing yourself do the same thing day after day, interpreting is worth exploring (community and higher education interpreting in particular)." Speech-Language pathologist Laura Anderson, also from the US, agrees, saying that, “Students should not hesitate to pursue a degree or course in sign language. It is always to a person’s advantage to learn another language.”

Another intriguing application for sign language is communicating with animals. Yes, animals! A famous example is the late gorilla, Koko, who learned sign language and was able to have full conversations with the humans taking care of her. Even Robin Williams, the actor and comedian known for his endearing heart-warming roles, met Koko and she was captured on video mourning his death. If sign language can connect humans and animals, and create meaningful connections between these two species, what else can sign language achieve?

Many things, actually. Just watching this video of music sign interpreter, Amber Galloway Gallego, demonstrates what can be done with sign language. Let’s just say that this woman’s signing of music by major pop singers and artists is infectious, and addicting, to watch! Galloway Gallego is a nationally certified ASL interpreter and she shares her joy of transforming heard music into visual interpretation that can be understood and appreciated by the Deaf community. Her advice to sign-language learners is “to make deep roots in the deaf community because that is where the true language is lived and used.” Galloway Gallego also says that she feels happy that her career path has “been able to promote awareness on the deaf community.”

Inclusiveness is key to a diverse and equitable society. Sign language allows those who are not in the hearing world a place at the table, and a way to be involved in the conversation. NBC news writer, Sara Nović, writes, “Though the hearing community may view deafness as a hardship, having a common language and collective experience can foster a spirit of inclusivity. Race, class and gender-based discrimination are further amplified by disability. But because deafness can impact people of all races, religions, and classes, American Sign Language often serves as a connection between people from otherwise disparate backgrounds.”

This is particularly exemplary in the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern’s response to the Christchurch shootings when 50 people were fatally shot. During her response, Ardern had a sign language interpreter beside her to make sure that her message was available to all. This inclusivity is significant and vital for furthering cultural understanding and the deepening of dialogue between disparate groups.

Sign language grants you access to new ways of communicating with others. Not only does it help form new friendships, it also enriches everyone’s lives by increasing inclusivity. By learning sign language you can fully comprehend your friend’s description of that sunset on her hike, you can also ask her questions, and participate in the conversation. You also might find yourself in a successful and rewarding job or career along the way!

S.M. Audsley

S. M. Audsley is a freelance writer and poet who lives and works in Vermont, a small but mighty state in the United States. She is an avid outdoor enthusiast and a lover of potlucks.