Every linguaphile should learn a sign language

You are definitely missing out if you haven’t tried to learn your local sign language. So how do you start? I have tried two now (NZSL and Auslan) and I am still totally in love. I find the initial learning curve to be very easy, as long as you pick up a little bit of grammar you can start constructing sentences right away. There’s no pesky verb conjugation, no struggle to pronounce foreign sounds, and much of the vocabulary is very intuitive. The hard part is of course learning to express yourself with all the nuances as even a raised eyebrow can change the meaning. But starting with the basic conversation and being able to communicate basic needs comes very quickly. Learning a sign language is certainly something worth trying if you love languages, because they are totally different from your other spoken languages. Having to increase your visual and spatial awareness and learning to use classifiers is all part of the fun. When I first started I wondered “How will I learn words if I can’t write them down?” and I was even unsure if my previously learned language skills would help me at all. It was a great experience to give it a try, one I highly recommend. I’m still working on both Auslan and NZSL and hope to be fluent in one someday…

Here is my advice if you are starting out with a sign language

Step One: Identify your local language

Contrary to popular belief, there is no one universal sign language. Each language formed naturally on its own, just like spoken languages. Just two countries speak English doesn’t mean the sign languages will be mutually intelligible. American Sign Language, for example, is more closely related to French Sign Language than to British Sign Language. Some countries with more than one official spoken language also have more than one sign language (Swiss people use German Sign Language, French Sign Language and Italian Sign language) while New Zealand has only one sign language incorporating concepts from both English and Māori.

Step Two: Sign up for a class if possible

One of the most important things about sign language is to see it in action, in person. Grammar is an aspect that is very hard to find online resources for. Sign languages have their own grammar and are not just the signed words of a spoken language. Since it is such a visual language, you would really benefit from a person to person exchange. There are often quite affordable courses available at community colleges and high school night classes. Your local Deaf Association should be able to help with finding a course. Not only do you get instruction from a fluent signer who can correct you, it is also a great way to meet fellow learners. While of course I advocate getting out there and signing to native speakers, starting with other learners is a great way to practise without feeling too self-conscious. You might even make some great friends 🙂

Step Three: Learn the manual alphabet

Learning to fingerspell can be done in an afternoon. Some sign languages have a one-handed alphabet, others use two hands. But be forewarned: learning to read other people’s quick fingerspelling feels like it takes a lifetime! Don’t be discouraged if you have trouble reading when people fingerspell to you, because signers don’t necessarily see each letter separately like you will need to do as you are starting out. What you want to work up to is is to read the shape of the word (and of the lips: usually the signer will mouth the word as they spell it) which is what people fluent in sign language are doing. This is a great video which explains a bit about the “flow” of fingerspelling.

Step Four: Explore the available resources

There are some wonderful online dictionaries and exercises which you will want to make full use of. I have included some links at the ends of the post. Video dictionaries are becoming ever more common. You can also purchase paper dictionaries with pictures of signs. Your local library is likely to have video courses and exercises as well. Do all you can to pick up new vocabulary and try to make a note of signs you learn in class. Did you know that memrise has a sign language section? You could make lists of the words you learn. Youtube and Vimeo also have stories and vlogs in sign language, not to mention a few tutorials, great especially for learning the manual alphabet.

Step Five: Move out into the real world

The sooner the better, try to find Deaf events to attend. Not only will you be learning about a language, but about Deaf culture. Many cities have Deaf clubs, meetings for learners to practise with fluent signers, cultural events, theatre, sports teams, book clubs and public events that are interpreted. If you know any Deaf people, ask if they wouldn’t mind helping you with your sign language. Perhaps your teacher might know someone as well. You could put an ad online or at a local university to see if anyone would like to be your sign buddy. And if you can’t go out to events perhaps you could find someone to video chat with over Skype.

Even if you don’t plan on becoming fluent, basic sign language is a wonderful skill to have. It makes a fun change from the spoken/written languages you might have tried, it will introduce you to Deaf culture, and it is great to use when you have a sore throat or are out with friends at a loud club. For that I recommend dragging your friends with you to a course and forcing them to be your guinea pigs 😉


General Links from Omniglot includes quite a few languages and different manual alphabets

American Sign Language Resources

British Sign Language Resources

NZSL Dictionary with awesome sample sentences

NZSL Lessons

NZSL Exercises Online

Auslan Dictionary and resources

Curso de Lengua de Señas Argentinas (Argentine Sign Language)