I’m going to be just a teeny bit controversial, but if you stick with me to the end, you’ll realize that it’s actually NOT controversial at all.
I sent out a survey to my subscribers just the other day asking “what do you want to know in regards to ASL?” I got a TON of answers, and you know what, the answers were pretty much the SAME for everyone.
Then I got this one response, that wasn’t really a response at all. I mean sure, it was a reply, but it wasn’t in answer to the question, “what’s your biggest challenge with learning ASL?”
This is something I have been emailed and messaged about throughout my years of teaching ASL online.
To sum it up →
“using xyz resources is all well and good, but you can’t learn sign language without signing with a Deaf person.”
Here’s where we get controversial… A little.
claim: You can’t learn sign language from a book or video
Let’s first talk about the claim that signing from a book, video, to yourself, or in front of a camera is helpful, but it doesn’t teach a person fluent sign language.
I both agree and disagree.
You CAN learn sign language by using these methods alone. If you look around at the hundreds of thousands of language learning courses in this world, you’ll see that this is the case. You can learn any language in this world with the *right* resources.
On a deserted island.
There are people in this world that have learned dead languages (meaning, languages that are no longer used and spoken in any culture or country) and can read, speak, and write in these languages.
And they learned it all from BOOKS!
Ancient Greek is one example I can think of off the top of my head. There are many scholars and regular folk that can communicate in a dead language.
I also agree that it’s not the ONLY way. And in some ways, it’s not the BEST way.
When I speak of pouring over your dictionary, watching ASL videos, signing with yourself, in front of a camera or mirror, I am speaking to moving forward.
What good is it to sign with someone if you’re not going to do the work and learn the signs? To practice them on your own?
Going to a Deaf event and expecting all the Deaf people there to stop their socializing, their time with their friends and teach you everything they know about ASL is selfish, presumptuous, and ridiculous.
You can’t learn everything you need to know in an evening, in a month of evenings.
You use those times to REFINE your learning. To sharpen it, to practice, to make friends, and learn the finer nuanced signing skills that are NEVER EVER EVER taught in an ASL class because they’re learned IRL because that portion of the language is so fluid you can’t nail it down.
Let me repeat, you use it to REFINE. Not define.
You do the work on the front end. You put in the time, learn the signs, practice signing, and then you go out and sign with others.
Before you misunderstand, you don’t have to reach a high level to qualify. You can “qualify” before you even finish a level 1 course, or even half of a level 1 course
Claim: signing should only be learned from a Deaf person
Now let me address the next part. Signing with the Deaf Community.
If you can sign with people in the Deaf Community… DO IT!
That’s a no brainer and something I do talk about.
My issue is twofold and are the very reasons I do not PUSH this idea (but I do state it, though I obviously need to state this more frequently for clarity’s sake).
Reason #1 I take issue
People use it as an excuse.
“Oh, I can’t learn sign language because I have no one to practice with. I have no one to sign with.”
I call bull.
I learned for 8 years without someone to sign with.
The first time I met a Deaf person, I’d been signing (on my own) for 8 years, and I was 14 at the time. Yes, I started when I was 6-- I can document it. We met while we were ice skating at the local rink in Sugar Land, Texas.
She was a teenager and I was so excited to meet a fellow teenager friend, AND she was Deaf, AND I could sign with her.
We chatted and hung out that entire afternoon, and made plans to meet up every Saturday for the next month or so.
I was in heaven.
She was born Deaf, raised Deaf (meaning, she was taught ASL from birth) and we signed well together. It admittedly took me about 30 min - 1 hour to get comfortable understanding her signing with me (again, no one had ever signed TO me beyond my own reflection in the mirror), but I never struggled to sign with her.
In full disclosure, I was hella nervous (I was pretty shy) and was a bit stiff at first, but soon relaxed because she was so nice. She commented on how well I signed several times. Oh man, I was stoked!
The NEXT time I was with a Deaf person I was 17. (3 years later)
I had traveled with a good family friend to stay with her extended family up on a farm for the entire summer during my junior year of high school. Her older step-sister was Deaf.
She had a cochlear implant, and was also losing her vision. She grew up attending schools for the Deaf, while her family didn’t really know ASL and relied on her not so reliable cochlear implant to communicate with her.
We met and from that moment on, for the next 3 months, I interpreted for her everywhere we went, including several hours at church every Sunday.
I had never interpreted before!
Was I perfect at it?
Ha! That’s a laugh. But I was capable.
Of course, I grew and improved quite a bit over the next 3 months.
The next time I was with Deaf people was 1 year later when I was hired to work at the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind.
After that, I was on a volunteer trip for my church where I worked among the Deaf Community, I was in my 20’s.
Then I was working as an interpreter at the local high school, as well as teaching. From then on I was interpreting and teaching ASL.
The key things I want to make with this are:
1)I learned BEFORE I had the golden opportunity to meet a Deaf friend, however temporary (we moved).
2) I interpreted for a Deaf friend AFTER I had learned sign language.
Did I have more to learn? Absolutely! Was I fluent? I was competent, but not fluent fluent by 17.
3) During those times when I didn’t have someone to sign with I was actively learning and doing whatever I could to practice, learn, and grow.
Please remember, this was BEFORE the internet was what it is today. None of my resources available were found online.
So, yes, you can learn ASL without practicing with people AT THE BEGINNING to intermediate stage.
Will it be more fun with someone? Absolutely.
Will it progress faster? That’s possible.
Which brings me to reason #2
If I showed you the number of emails I have received over the years of people asking me how to find the Deaf Community where they lived you’d be astounded.
Every day for the past 6 years, I have received an email from at least ONE person asking me this very question.
Do you know what I have to tell them?
And it darn well breaks my heart.
I give pointers for how they could possibly find them, but it’s really a big fat “good luck!”
If you should chance upon someone that’s signing grab ‘em and ask ‘em right away!
Go to the mall food court and ask there.
Go to the local coffee shops & bowling places & diners and ask if a group of Deaf people ever come in.
Go find a local college if they have an ASL teacher or club or a bulletin and ask there.
You can jump on good ole Googs (google) and not find anything.
Believe me, I’ve looked and looked. The last thing I ever found that said advertise your local Deaf group on this message board, the site looked like it was from 2001 and had definitely not been updated in the past decade. That was 5 years ago.
By all means HUNT THEM DOWN and once you find them, never let go.
But be prepared to do some major hunting and have some major patience.
In some places there is no Deaf community.
There are ASL groups online, and I have shared those with my followers. (ASL That! is
one of my favorites.)
But it’s not really the same as conversing with them one on one, or one to four.
And again, if people can’t find Deaf folks to chat with are they going to stop learning ASL?
A lot do. And that’s sad. And avoidable.
Are you going to tell someone that they should STOP learning ASL because they don’t have a Deaf person to learn from?
A lot of people do. And that’s sad.
To sum this novel up:
Sign with ANYONE you can.
Don’t let the lack of someone to sign with stop you from learning and signing.
Sign with anyone you can, even if they’re a cursed hearing person, and when you do meet a Deaf or Hard of Hearing person you’ll be READY and raring to go!
Do the work and stop the excuses.
Be realistic and work within the boundaries and limitations you are experiencing right now.
Never ever ever think that Rochelle says “don’t sign with Deaf people.” Because that’s an outright lie.
Don’t rely on Deaf people to be your teacher, to give you their special time. If you meet someone at a Deaf event and you ask for their help, and you want more help from them, offer to pay them for their time outside of the Deaf event.
Okay… that last one, I did mention briefly at the beginning, but I want to address it a little more fully.
Imagine you’re having a girl’s night out (or boy’s night out) after a long and stressful week at work/school.
You’re so dang excited. You arrive, order some drinks, are laughing and having an amazing time when someone walks up to you.
They seem to be a nice person, and they speak to you with a broken accent.
“Hello, I Jennifer. I learn speak English.”
Naturally, being the kind person you are, you respond back and converse with them as much as you can.
Jennifer asks you questions and you reply.
Then you look at your watch, it’s been 2 hours and she’s still drilling you with questions about how to say this and say that. Your friends are bored. Some have left, some are tired of talking about English words.
She wants to meet you again next weekend for girls’ night to learn more English.
Your girls’ night didn't’ really go as planned, and you certainly don’t want to do this again next weekend.
This made up story illustrates a few things that I’ve mentioned, but want to show you in a different setting to shed light.
While some folks reading this would balk and say, “Oh no, but they always tell me they love to help me!”
“They always say to go to the Deaf events because that’s the only way you’ll learn.”
“Oh no! Oh no, this is not so!”
I’ll tell you what. It is so.
While most Deaf/HH folks would be happy to help you, remember they’re not there for YOU.
To think they are is again, presumptuous, selfish, and ridiculous to assume.
They’re there for the rare opportunity to hang out with their friends and other Deaf folks.
Because of this you will definitely run into folks that DO NOT want to sign with you. Understand from their perspective why this could be, and try again with another person or group.
Keep your questions to a minimum.
Don’t show up knowing the alphabet and 2 signs. Do some homework first.
Focus on interacting with them as PEOPLE rather than teachers. (because they are PEOPLE first, Deaf second)
If you want them to teach you, then hire them at a different time. Pay them for their knowledge and expertise rather than expecting them to give it to you for free. And on their time.
Ya feel me?
Back to the final summary.
Sign with people.
Learn signs however you can whenever you can so you can sign with people.
Sign with people.
Excuses are excuses. Come up with solutions instead. Otherwise? It’s safe to say that whatever the goal is you’re making excuses for doesn’t mean enough to you. I’d say let go of the goal, let go of any regrets you may have, and move on to something that lights you up instead. No judgement from me if it’s sign language you let go of.
Am I the only person out there teaching ASL?
Of course not.
Am I the best?
I daren’t make that presumption.
But I will say, I’ve been in your shoes.
I know what it’s like to love the language, think it’s fascinating and want to learn even if there’s no real reason other than desire.
I have been in your shoes where I had no one to sign with. No one to tell me if I was doing it right or doing it wrong.
I know what it’s like to go from knowing nothing, to knowing a bit, to knowing more, to knowing a lot.
I know what it’s like to be terrified to sign with someone else.
I know what it’s like to be told I was doing it wrong while signing. (my grammar saga you may or may not be familiar with)
I know what it’s like to work towards a goal and a dream and achieve it.
My sole purpose is to get you set up with a solid foundation, be comfortable making mistakes, keep moving forward always, and know the guidelines of the language.
My sole purpose is to get you started on the right foot and moving forward.
Because I know how important signing with others is I set up practice partners in my ASL courses.
A moment of honesty, that was a hot mess. Folks would sign up and then never show up.
It was frustrating to me and to my students.
I then closed it down because this was a huge sticking point.
I set up a feature that people could find each other, with the hopes that people who actually wanted to do the work and took the time to reach out would actually do the work. Not always the case. And a lot of people didn’t want to take the time to reach out.
In my new course, The ASL Academy: LIVE I’m hoping to end this frustration for good.
I set up Group Practice sessions that I host each week.
I am there, every student is invited. Will 100% show up? Probably not, but a good many will.
The first bit of the practice session will be guided by me.
Then, I’ll split the big group up into smaller groups. Each week you’ll meet with a different group. Some could be the same, some could be different. The group may be smaller, it may be larger.
Each practice session will be guided-- meaning, you’ll know exactly what to do and how. No staring at each other shrugging shoulders.
Every week you WILL have someone to practice with.
Before that, you’ll have opportunity to watch a practice receptive video so that when you get on the practice call you’ll feel more comfortable and know what people are signing to you.
You’ll have the chance to get your questions answered before the group practice session. Meaning, you’ll know you’re signing it correctly. You’ll be able to learn additional signs if you desire. You’ll get better clarity. And again, have a chance to practice.
Think of how confident you’ll be when it comes to the group practice session!
And of course, the main training is presented with lots of repetition, lots of phrase and sentence building, in real time so you can get your questions answered then and there. You can sign along with me and I can correct your signing.
You know what’s even cooler? You can then take your new signing skills, your confidence, and get out there and sign with anyone, Deaf or hearing.
You can learn sign language if you want to learn sign language with whatever method you can use at the time.
The 2 things required to learn ASL:
If you want my help, I’m be thrilled to give it.
You can start by joining The ASL Academy: LIVE!