American Sign Language (ASL) is a beautiful vibrant language that uses hand motions, facial expressions and body language to convey its message
ASL has consistently been the third largest language used in the United States. So you’ve eagerly jumped on the learning bandwagon, but several lessons later you can’t figure out why you’re not a fluent signer or “reader”.
Here’s 5 reasons why you’re lousy at sign language:
1. You expect it to be like English
You go into class assuming it’s a translation of English and it’ll be easy to learn.
ASL has its own grammar system which means there are rules for phonology, morphology, syntax, and pragmatics. A simple explanation would be the difference in sentence structure. For example, in English “The girl kicked the ball” would be signed as “Ball, Girl kick”.
It takes just as long to learn American Sign Language as it does any other language like Spanish or German. It takes even longer to start “thinking in ASL” and stop using English grammar rules as you sign.
2. You’re not meeting other Signers
You take all the lessons, but go a long while before meeting a Deaf person or another signer, then struggle to sign or understand the other person.
Simply put, "if you don't use it, you lose it." If you really want to remember how to sign you need to keep ASL constant in your life. Watch videos, movies, find a Skype or FaceTime partner to sign with, go to Deaf clubs and events. Or even try a great online service called SignOn C.P.R. which connects you to Deaf ASL experts where you can practice one on one.
Secondly, if you're not around Deaf people, you will not build up your receptive skills (watching and understanding others signing) as well as never experiencing Deaf culture in all its glory.
3. You got a lousy teacher
Whether you take classes at a college, library, or online, it’s hard to verify that the instructor is qualified and capable of teaching. Unless they’ve been certified by the American Sign Language Teachers Association (ASLTA), you’re pretty much left to the whims of a stranger.
There are also countless Youtube videos out there posted by students eager to teach, but end up showing the incorrect signs. So if they’re teaching wrong then you’re learning wrong.
Also don’t expect to get your signs right if you’re learning from a book. It’s pretty difficult to express a moving sign in a flat picture.
4. You’re not “Expressive”
As I mentioned earlier, ASL is an expressive language using facial expressions and body language.
The emotional impact of a message is conveyed in the movements, the more rapid or bigger the movements, the more excited or angry the person is. This is hard for non-signers to understand as one website’s headline states “Bizarre Sign Language Interpreter Steals Show”. If the interpreter stood still and quietly signed, that to Deaf people is akin to listening to Ben Stein speak – flat and boring.
So learn to relax and let the expressions flow, but don’t go the other extreme either and exaggerate everything either, especially with mouth enunciation.
5. You might be “Dyslexic”
There are a few people that have “Sign Language Dyslexia” as some Signers call it. They just cannot understand another signer no matter how much they study ASL.
One way you could overcome this is to stand next to the signer instead of face-to-face. Watch them sign from behind, just like you would see your own signing.
You may also overcome this by sticking with one other signer for a while and learn their "accent" (Yes Deaf people have signing accents). This may help develop your receptive skills and then you can add another person and study them, and so on.
No matter the reason why you’re a lousy signer, please don’t give up! The Deaf Community needs more people who can understand their language, are willing to try to communicate, and enjoy Deaf Culture.
Sure, there’ll be a few Deaf people that will be harsh and critical of your signing, but just ignore them. This “ASL Police”, as we call them, are critical of other Deaf people’s signing too and do it to fill their own arrogant needs.
So be patient, keep learning, and have fun!
"One finds limits by pushing them" ~ Herbert Simon