Sign languages behold conversations beyond words. The language is illustrative and tactile. A boon for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, sign language is used by millions of people today. People wanting to master the dialect often have questions like, how long does it take to learn sign language? Well, let us find out the answer to this query.
This article is going to talk about all the specifics of sign language, along with emphasizing methods to learn it. For a quicker glimpse of any particular detail, skip to the relevant section from the table of contents.
The UN General Assembly has declared 23rd September as the International Day of Sign Languages. First celebrated in 2018, the idea was put forward by the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD). The theme for 2022 was “Sign Languages Unite Us!”.
Sign languages should be preserved, developed, and promoted. And what better way to do so than by learning all about them? Curious about how hard is sign language to learn? Worry not, as all queries will be resolved. So, let’s begin.
What is Sign Language?
Before we find out, “How long does it take to learn sign language?”, it is necessary to properly understand what it is. Sign language is a form of communication that engages hand gestures, facial expressions, and bodily movements for the conveyance of messages. Sign language can simply be called talking with hands.
This pantomimic (communicating with gestures and movements rather than words) language is the primary mode of communication for the deaf and hard-of-hearing (HOH) people and their families and friends. Even people without any auricular (related to ear) disability can use it to communicate in situations where speech is impossible, like injury or some medical condition.
Also termed gesture language or finger spelling, sign language is a recognized natural language with its system of grammar and terminologies. Sign language grammar has its own sentence structure protocols, which may or may not coincide with general spoken English. These rules are taught and learned with explicit instructions. In some countries, sign language has been bestowed with official recognition and is legally acceptable.
The evolution of sign language has created many versions of it as well. Learning sign language begins with deciding which variation of it you want to pursue. Let us have a look at this aspect of the subject.
Types of Sign Language
The differences in cultures of the nations evoke diversity in sign language as well. The language reforms depend upon the community developing it. Just as people have developed world languages at their convenience, deaf communities have also created many forms of sign language for communication.
Despite the fact that sign language is entirely different from spoken language, it still exhibits two similarities:
- The fundamentals like the duality of patterning (combining meaningless units to create a meaningful unit) and recursion (big grammatical concepts are composed of simpler rules of the same) are native to sign language as well.
- While there are 6,500 versions of spoken languages, there are 150 sign languages as well.
The biggest misconception about sign language is that there’s only one universal language. Well, that’s a delusion. How could a language used by millions with extensive cultural diversity not have variations? To clear up this confusion, we are presenting some major versions of the language.
Starting off with the United States, the country alone uses 3 types of sign languages:
- American Sign Language (ASL): Signed by using one hand only, this is the official sign language of America.
- Pidgin Signed English (PSE): It implements the vocabulary of ASL but borrows the grammar from general American English. Also, it is the most popular, especially among teachers.
- Signing Exact English (SEE): With signs adopted from ASL and blended with the vernaculars of English, this one is a rich version of the dialect.
If you are someone who wants to learn one of the sign languages and wonder, “Is ASL good?”, just know that it is the third most common language in the United States.
Talking about other countries now, the United Kingdom also has its native version called British Sign Language(BSL). It utilizes a two-handed alphabet and has many dialects.
There is also an Australian Sign Language(Auslan), Irish Sign Language (ISL), Indo-Pakistani Sign Language (IPSL), and even a blend of British, Australian, and New Zealand Sign Languages called BANZSL.
With so many genres of lingo, it might get baffling for a beginner. The first obvious question would be, “Is sign language hard to learn?”. The next section is going to focus on guiding you on your journey to learn sign language.
How Long Does it Take to Learn Sign Language?
The duration of learning sign language varies from person to person. You have to begin by choosing the sign language version you want to learn. Then proceed with memorizing the basics, like the alphabet.
For instance, if you decide to learn ASL, it will take you 60–90 hours to learn the alphabet. And the answer to “How long does it take to learn ASL?” will vary from a few months to a few years.
There are many methods that you can employ to learn sign language:
- The most effective method would be to learn from a tutor. Taking professional classes teaches you the language from the core. Additionally, an expert targets all learning styles and follows Universal Design for Learning guidelines.
- Learning by interacting with a native user will help you get first-hand experience.
- Technological assistance is also available. There are plenty of efficient apps that can teach you all the nitty-gritty of sign languages. Some of the apps are The ASL App, ASL Kids, Marlee Signs, ASL Dictionary, etc.
- Books, websites, and video courses can also be helpful to some extent. Here are some books you can refer to: Learn American Sign Language By James W. Guido and American Sign Language for Beginners By Rochelle Barlow.
- Begin with learning the alphabet first. Then move on to learn some basic words, like hello, yes, no, etc.
- Get in the habit of reading illustrative storybooks and journals documented using sign language too.
- Actively indulge in conversations with people who can sign.
- Embrace your mistakes and learn from them. Just like learning any other skill, learning sign language can sometimes feel pretty challenging.
- Have small daily goals, and try to achieve them. These will work as stepping stones.
- Try practicing in front of a mirror or record yourself. This will help you analyze and improve your gestures.
- Platforms like YouTube have ample content to contribute to your learning. Channels like Lellobee Sign Language for Kids, and Morphle MyGo! – Sign Language for Kids, CoComelon MyGo!, Signed with Heart, and What the Deaf?! are quite popular.
With plenty of resources to fuel your efforts, it is not very tough to improve your knowledge acquisition base. Nonetheless, it all comes back to you, as everything is dependent upon your skills and endeavor.
How Hard is it to Learn Sign Language?
Memorizing the alphabet and hand gestures is the first stage. However, mastering the language is a different story altogether. First off, you need to understand that it is impossible to be fluent on your own. Sure, you could read and watch illustrative sign language-based sources. But they can just support your learning process and not ensure fluency. For in-depth comprehension, a tutor is a must.
There are also certain circumstances that influence your learning process. You can dedicate decades to learning sign language and yet come off as a non-native user. So, your aim should be being able to converse and be understood, rather than being perfect. And don’t be discouraged thinking, “Is sign language hard to learn?”. The process does throw challenges, but nothing that can’t be tackled.
Your resources will always be insufficient if you are not directly interacting with the deaf culture. It is highly advisable to attend sign language meetings. These meetings are a get-together for deaf or hard of hearing (DHH) people and people who wish to learn the language. Socializing with deaf communities strengthens your linguistic skills in sign language.
Your learning style is always a huge deciding factor in your progress. Going for sources and modes that agree with your learning style is the fastest way to learn anything. So if you are Googling, “How long does it take to learn ASL?”, you should also foresee your learning style requirements.
Let’s say you are a visual learner. Getting a sketchbook that illustrates hand signs, drawing signs on your own, or practicing the gestures in front of a mirror helps you visualize your lessons and retain them for longer.
Likewise, for the kinesthetic learning style, it is best to attend meetups for sign language and practice through practical conversations. Resources that agree with your learning style are the most suitable for you. Hence, be on the lookout for those.
This is one step you can take to ease up your learning process. So if you ask, “Is sign language hard to learn?”, a good portion of the answer depends on you.
Learning sign language becomes essential for people who can’t communicate using words, along with their kin and friends. But it is not limited to them only. Anyone who wants to add a new skill to their resume or wishes to upgrade their linguistic pool can go for it. There are many more pros to learning sign language. Read on to find out.
Merits of Learning Sign Language
Actively learning new things keeps your mind agile. It is a known fact that the brain is a muscle that keeps getting stronger the more you use it. Hence, advancing your skill set is an excellent way of keeping your brain sharp.
Learning a new language contributes a lot towards enhancing your intellect. When you get introduced to new language rules, it helps in boosting your memory and makes you a multitasker. And sign language can come across as a brilliant choice.
The benefits of learning sign language are manifold. Some of them are:
- Bestows with the ability to tackle complex spatial reasoning. An inevitable element of math, science, art, and physical education, spatial reasoning means thinking in 3-d. Sign language taps into our visual capacities and, thus, helps us perceive the world three-dimensionally.
- Due to the involvement of hand, facial, and bodily movements, sign language also upgrades our sense of understanding body language.
- Procedures that require the involvement of more than one sensorial organ (like the Orton Gillingham Reading Program) massively improve our reaction time and elevate our peripheral abilities. As sign language is also a multisensorial mechanism, it contributes to having quick reflexes and better peripheral vision.
- Learning any new language improves memory. And when it comes to learning sign language, our brains face and deal with much greater complexity. Therefore, greater mental benefits.
Just like any other natural language, sign language also has evolved through the ages. We will now move on to discuss its journey of origin and development.
Origin and Development of Sign Language
It is quite unviable to pinpoint the exact timeline of the birth of sign language. The idea can be traced back to the 5th century BC when Socrates said, “If we hadn’t a voice or a tongue, and wanted to express things to one another, wouldn’t we try to make signs by moving our hands, head, and the rest of our body, just as dumb people do at present?”
The development of sign language mostly began with it as a gestural language. Even during the Middle Ages, the focus was mainly on demonstrating speech through gestures. And the manual alphabet developed in the 19th century also contributed to this notion.
It was the Europeans who can be credited with the usage of true sign
language. Then in 1620 came the Madrid publication of Juan Pablo Bonet’s “Reduction of letters and art for teaching mute people to speak”. This can be considered the first-ever monographic record of manual phonetics.
Another breakthrough is the 1680 treatise named Didascalocophus, or, The Deaf and dumb man’s Tutor by George Dalgarno. Dalgarno connected each alphabet with the joints of the fingers and the palm of the left hand. For this reason, the book was called an arthrological (relating to joints) record.
Philanthropic educator Charles-Michel de l’Épée, also known as the Father of the Deaf, established the first public school for hearing-impaired children. He also rephrased the French alphabet into a sign dictionary of letters, gestures, and theories.
When Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet decided to help his neighbor’s deaf daughter in the 1800s, he collaborated with Laurent Clerc (a deaf European sign language tutor) and created the American sign language. ASL is said to be derived from the French Sign Language, Martha’s Vineyard, and the Native Americans’ signing system.
The journey of the language till today’s Deaflympics has been an intricate one. And this journey has also given rise to certain misconceptions.
Myths About Sign Language
Whenever something gets popular, myths become a part of its journey. The false beliefs mostly emerge from the lack of knowledge about the concept. Needless to say, there are misconceptions surrounding sign language as well. It is better to know, understand, and rectify them for effective sign language learning.
Myth #1- There is Only One Sign Language
Starting with the most popular one. When people first come to know about sign language, they automatically assume that all deaf communities worldwide use only a singular language. The assumption is incorrect, yet quite obvious. Hence, it needs to go away.
As of 2021, Ethnologue (an annual magazine documenting global languages) has cataloged 150 sign languages. Whereas, the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) has recognized over 300 of them. This means that sign languages have multiple versions which are part of the numerous deaf communities all over the world.
Myth #2- All Deaf People Can Read Lips
A big, fat No for this one. Lip-reading is actually a skill in itself that might take years, if not a decade, of practice. Even if some deaf or hard of hearing (DHH) people can read lips, they could decipher only 30-45% of the speech. And clearly, the communication is going to be one-sided.
Myth #3- Writing is an Alternative to Sign Language
People who can sign prefer signing to writing notes for obvious grammatical differences. Additionally, writing and passing notes is a very slow and tiring process.
Myth #4- If an interpreter is involved, the conversation should be directed to them
The interpreter assists in a back-and-forth dialogue between two people. They are not the ones you are actually conversing with. Always directly address the person and let them ask the interpreter for help when they wish. Talking only to the interpreter makes the actual audience feel sidelined.
Myth #5- ASL (American Sign Language) is similar to shorthand
Shorthand enables faster writing. This note-taking method uses symbols to denote words. Even though sign language uses gestures for communication, there is absolutely no connection between the two.
Myth #6 – Sign language just converts speech into gestures
That is not the purpose of sign language. Sign language is a true and complete language system. Its linguistic elements follow a designated set of rules and are entirely unrelated to the spoken languages.
Myth #7- Sign language is just hand gestures
Sign language is a blend of gestures and postures. Along with hand movements, it also makes use of many non-manual features. Many grammatical distinctions are presented through facial or bodily movements. For instance, a question is distinguished from a statement by an eyebrow lift.
Myth #8- Sign language cannot have an accent
When sign language can have versions like spoken language, why can’t it have an accent? An accent develops between communities of people and is native to their places of origin. In the case of sign language, accent depends upon factors like speed of signing, hand placement, and shape of your fingers.
If you belong to a region where people talk faster, your sign language speed will be influenced by this too. Even if your sign language remains untouched by the grammatical and syntax rules of the spoken language of the region, you might like to sign faster due to being surrounded by fast talkers.
Signed language corroborates the fact that human conversations are not restricted to words alone. Learning sign language teaches us to converse via non-verbal modes. Not to forget, the numerous meaningful connections we can have when associating with an entirely new community of people.
Even though the language is popular now, many versions of it may face extinction because of being used only by a few small communities. It is our duty to sustain this fascinatingly expressive dialect in every format. Learning and teaching sign language should be encouraged more in educational institutions from a very young age.