Today, millions of people use American Sign Language (ASL), but learning it can be hard. Even with the best ASL online courses readily available, it can be tricky to master this language. We reached out to an expert to get some insight into the best ways to learn American Sign Language, so you can set yourself up for success with ASL.
“ASL is not the same as English, it has a different grammar structure,” says Laurie Achin, ASL lecturer at the University of Georgia. “It is a visual language including body language, facial expressions, and handshapes so it takes time to understand the foundation and the root of the language itself and the deaf community/culture.”
But worry not, even if it’s hard, with the right tools and strategies you can ace the language.
Understanding the culture
Knowing a language in isolation isn’t enough. If you truly want to understand how to use ASL in the right context, get involved with the deaf community, says Achin who worked as an ASL consultant for The Walking Dead. “Have deaf friends and socialize so you are exposed to many aspects that are not provided in ASL classes.”
Keep in mind that this isn’t a good-to-have I’ll-do-it-later step. It actually helps. Learning the culture surrounding any language offers you a deeper insight into how the words and structures come together to form a meaningful sentence. This way, you won’t always have to translate everything from your native language when speaking in ASL as you’ll start picking up the local lingo and its nuances.
Attend ASL events
Only learning the language in class can seem boring. Want to add something new to the routine? Try attending ASL-focused events, Achin suggests. There are so many options to choose from. You can pick a virtual event from platforms like Eventbrite, or attend an in-person session in your neighborhood.
This will help you add a new layer to your typical language lessons, and also offer you the opportunity to meet new people and make ASL buddies to practice the language together later. Online learning hubs like Start ASL have social sides, where you can create a profile and meet local members of the deaf community - or sign up to online community events.
Watch Youtube and social media videos
We admit. Attending in-person ASL events can be scary when you are still new to the language. But that doesn’t mean you only have to stick to the books. You can make your practice more enjoyable by watching interesting Youtube videos on the topic.
This is where it gets even more interesting. You can choose to watch a video about ASL or watch ASL videos about different topics, depending on how much you have learned so far. Want to take it a level higher? Watch different deaf influencers on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, Achin suggests.
Say you are a great student who is picking up ASL skills fast. But how would you track your progress? A lot of the best online learning platforms , like Udemy, have some kind of testing process built in, so you can monitor your progress - but if you've opted not to go down that route, there are plenty of other ways you can check that you're improving.
You can do this by yourself in front of a mirror, or you can work with a friend. You can even score yourself manually by watching ASL videos and seeing how much you can understand. This will help you pinpoint where you are on your journey, which sections need more practice, and which you can confidently communicate. Remember the formula to learn anything: Make notes, adjust your practice routine, test yourself and repeat.
Use online resources
Don’t limit yourself to whatever is being taught in the class. You can stretch your learning horizons by using several free and paid online resources to learn and improve your ASL skills. Both Gallaudet and Start ASL have free-tier classes, for anyone who's completely new to sign language.
You could also try SignASL, a free online ASL dictionary that includes video answers to help you translate any English words. It is divided into two sections: recently searched words, and popular words so you can quickly find what you need. Additionally, you can look up any other word directly from the search bar. If you want a more comprehensive list, just click on the alphabet at the bottom of the page to find a complete list of words starting with the selected alphabet.
There's also something called the ASL app, which is created by a deaf-owned and deaf-run company. It features 2,500+ signs and phrases to help you learn basic conversational skills and revise the words you find difficult. It is quite easy to navigate, so even users new to online learning can use it. Plus it’s on your smartphone, so you can learn on the go.
Final tips on the best ways to learn American Sign Language
Be mindful of your journey
Learning ASL is a process. “Don’t assume because you took one or two ASL classes that you are fluent,” Achin says. Some learners learn fast and pick up the signs quickly but still lack the cultural roots to use the language correctly, she adds. Find where you are in your journey and keep improving accordingly.
Ask for help
It’s tempting to finish the lesson on your own without asking your teachers or classmates for help. But this can hold you back in your learning. Know that it’s okay to look for support. In fact, if you are reaching out to your classmates, you can practice together to help each other.
Make lifestyle changes
“Learning ASL includes ongoing lessons based on everyday lifestyle not just taking classes,” Achin says. “ In classes, you learn the foundations, grammar rules, and the basics but you really learn the roots outside of the class within the deaf community.”