What is the Best and Quickest Way to Learn American Sign Language (ASL)?
That is what families who have little to no experience with deafness and who are already in the process of adopting a deaf child ask me most often. Actually, that is a pretty common question I get from many others, as well.
Obviously, the best practice for the adoption of a deaf child would be for the entire family to know ASL before starting the process to adopt. This will provide an environment much more conducive to bonding with the deaf child more quickly, an ASL-rich environment. This would also give the adopting family additional opportunities to set aside days and possibly even weeks where the entire hearing family only uses ASL to communicate with each other before the new deaf son or daughter comes home.
Yes, it will always be easier for your hearing family members to speak to each other, and you will, but I urge you to include your deaf son or daughter in as much conversation (using ASL) as you possibly can to minimize their feeling ostracized more than they already will. Ideally, your deaf son or daughter should be given access to any and all conversations that any hearing child or family member would have access to.This is extremely challenging for an all-hearing family who adopts a deaf child. However, sad to say, this is a common experience even for biological deaf children who are raised in hearing homes. As adults, the Deaf tell stories of hearing family members rarely including them in their conversations, IF they knew any sign language at all. Often they would see others laughing or crying while conversing in English. If they asked what was so funny or what was wrong, they were always told, “Oh, it was nothing. I’ll tell you later.” But they never did. How can a deep meaningful parent-child relationship be developed in that kind of environment with that little communication? If everyone is signing all the time it stands to reason the new deaf family member will learn much more quickly. This will mimic the natural learning environment a hearing child is granted to learning how to speak English and hasten the deaf child’s ability to become a functioning part of the family. This will also enable, much more quickly, the adopted deaf child to be able to express their feelings and experiences with language (sign language) instead of with unacceptable behaviors, typical of a child who has come from “the hard place.
“Hanging out with Deaf people, multiple times weekly, is by far the BEST and fastest way to learn ASL and everything related to the Deaf World. You should know if you are only spending minimal time conversing with the Deaf your ASL skills will only improve accordingly. Immersion has always been the best and quickest way to learn a foreign language.Can you learn ASL other ways? Yes, of course, but it will take much longer and you will still have to hang out with Deaf people for you to become comfortable communicating with them in sign. The goal is proficiency in ASL, since this will be the mode of communication you will have with your deaf son or daughter for the rest of your lives. Proficiency for many of us learning ASL as adults, as our second language, will take our entire lifetime.
Notice I am saying hanging out with Deaf people, and not just one Deaf person. You will quickly find that each Deaf person is unique and their way of signing is also unique. The only way I know how to describe it is the way they sign is uniquely related to how, where and when they learned to sign and their own unique personality. Those who grew up in Deaf schools, for the most part, will be the most proficient in ASL. Those who grew up mainstreamed in the public school system will have varying degrees of proficiency in ASL. Then there will be many who did not learn sign language because they were not exposed to it, until they were in their twenties. Really a Deaf person’s signing is a part of who they are, their personality. You will find those who are fairly easy to understand and then you will find others who are very hard to understand. It depends on how clear they are in their signing and how large or small they sign, as well as, the size and shape of their fingers. Then add the speed at which they sign. For some Deaf people, you will meet everything gets blurred together, as their signing speed is so quick, especially the fingerspelled words. Learning ASL from interacting regularly with just one Deaf person will not be sufficient.
So how do you find Deaf people in your area?
Do a Google search for your area and add “deaf services”. For example: “Asheville Deaf Services”. Do another Google search for your area and add “deaf church”. Example: “Deaf Church Asheville”. To be honest, Deaf Churches with Deaf leaders are rare and will mostly be found in much larger metropolitan areas. If you live in a small town you will probably have to broaden your search to include a larger city or maybe even your state to start out. You should be able to send a few emails once you locate an organization in your state or area to determine if there is a concentration of Deaf people in your area.
If you cannot locate the Deaf population in your area, let us know at Signs for Hope and we will help.
If you live in an area that does not have a concentration of Deaf people you will want to rethink the adoption of a deaf child. Raising a deaf child with minimal skill in ASL and WITHOUT the influence of native ASL signers and successful members of the Deaf community as role models will greatly limit the ability for your adopted son or daughter to thrive and reach their greatest potential.
To help you better understand, this would be similar to your trying to raise your adopted child (who possibly knows no spoken language when they come home) to speak Spanish at the same time you are learning it, assuming you have never known Spanish before, then never giving them the opportunity to hear a native-Spanish speaker or associate with Hispanic people, even though you want your child’s spoken Spanish to be the best. You should be able to imagine how much longer it would take for you and your adopted child to be able to communicate well enough to begin to bond using Spanish (not your native spoken English). And what precious time would be lost in that long process to attain that level of language needed for comprehending what each other are saying. The limitations caused by never allowing interactions with those whom your child most identifies with and will eventually become most associated with will have great impact on their development in many areas.
Other ways to supplement your new involvement with your local Deaf community is by taking ASL classes, preferably with a Deaf or native-signer instructor. You need to be aware that all ASL classes are not equal. ASL is a true language with its own syntax, morphology and structure. There are sign-systems based on English including SEE (Seeing Essential English or Signed Exact English), PSE (Pidgin Signed English), and MCE (Manually Coded English), however, they are not a true language.
Why do I make these distinctions?
You will want to focus your efforts on the learning of ASL first and foremost. If you do not and decide to focus on any of the sign systems mentioned, your ability to switch to ASL, later on, will be much more challenging. I have watched numerous students over 8 years time struggle to gain skill in ASL after having learned the others previously. It is not easy and some are unable to make the transition well. However, once you have learned ASL it is much easier to learn a sign-system, if desired, and then be able to switch back and forth as you wish.
Check-in your community for a state Deaf school. Check local community colleges and universities. ASL classes are sometimes available at these educational institutions. Having other students to practice with, in a live classroom setting is beneficial, more so than ASL classes on-line.
Gallaudet University offers on-line ASL courses if you want to supplement your learning ASL that way, as well.
Finding a Deaf person to work with you in your home, as a mentor/tutor, can also be beneficial for improving your ASL skills. Once you are connected in the Deaf community begin asking about the possibility of someone becoming a tutor for you and your family. Make sure they understand you want to be challenged by learning ASL, not something they think would be simpler for you to understand and learn.
As you begin learning ASL, practice daily with each other and ask God to help you. He is the One who has created all languages, so who better to ask for help?
I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. Philippians 4:13
But this will require commitment, time and perseverance on your part and your entire family’s part. This applies to learning ASL and to the life-long journey of deaf adoption IF God has called you to it!