"Mommy, what are those people doing?"
You follow your daughter's gaze and discover two people deep in conversation. Instead of hearing the rise and fall of voices, however, you notice hands and fingers moving silently through the air, punctuated by an occasional raised eyebrow or questioning look.
"They're talking in sign language, honey," you explain, turning back to your daughter. "Those people can't hear, so they use their hands to talk to each other."
"I want to talk in sign language, too," your daughter informs you, and so begins your family's journey into the fascinating world of sign. Other families may begin in a different way, perhaps by watching the movie The Miracle Worker or by reading a book about Helen Keller.
My interest in sign language began simply as a case of boredom. Pregnant with my first child many years ago, I spotted an advertisement in the newspaper for a free class in sign language. Two semesters later I moved to Baltimore, where we became involved in a church that had a ministry to the deaf. Before long I was helping to interpret the worship services, and not long after that I was taking part-time jobs interpreting college classes. My four children all grew up being familiar with sign, but it was my oldest daughter who actually learned the language, went on to become a professional interpreter, and is now engaged to a young man who is severely hard-of-hearing. What began as idle curiosity many years ago has now become an integral part of our family's way of life.
Whether your family's interest in sign is a passing curiosity or a burning passion, there are many reasons why your family might want to consider learning sign language. Children who have difficulty with verbal language (either because of their age or because of special needs) often find it easier to communicate in the nonverbal, kinesthetic manner that sign language provides. Parents especially appreciate the fact that sign language can be used to communicate in situations where speech is neither permitted nor possible, as in church or the dentist's office or when a family member suffers from laryngitis. Families with a heart for evangelism often see the possibility of sharing the gospel with a deaf unbeliever. Even if no one in your family becomes involved with deaf people on a regular basis, sign language can still be a fun and enriching activity for your family.
If you and your family decide that you would like to learn sign language, the first step is to determine which sign language system you will study. Hearing people generally find it easiest to learn the signs for the words they commonly use and simply sign as if they were speaking aloud. A system such as this is called signed English because it uses signs in standard English order, sometimes adding markers to indicate features such as verb tenses or endings. While this may suffice for most families, the reality is that most deaf people in the United States and Canada commonly converse in American Sign Language (ASL). While many of the signs are similar to a signed English system, ASL uses a grammar system of its own, depending on gestures, facial expressions, and spatial contexts to convey meaning. If your family knows deaf people or plans to interact with them, you should consider learning American Sign Language instead of a signed English system.
A word of caution needs to be added here for high school students who are interested in studying sign language for credit. When a student learns a foreign language, he not only learns the vocabulary of the language, but he also learns the unique grammatical structures that underlie that language. For this reason, signed English does not qualify as a foreign language because, although it uses its own vocabulary, it does not have its own grammar system. American Sign Language, on the other hand, does meet both of the criteria for a true foreign language, but not all colleges recognize this fact. There is a list of colleges that accept ASL for credit at www.unm.edu/~wilcox/ASLFL/univlist.html, but this list is not exhaustive, so students should check with the institution(s) that they are interested in attending before commencing their studies to see whether those schools recognize ASL for foreign-language credit.
Once you have decided which sign language system you will study, you will, of course, want to locate instructional materials to help you in this task. As with any other foreign language, the very best way to learn it is by interacting with native speakers of that language. In the case of sign language, it would be best if you could locate an actual class, preferably taught by a deaf person. Many of these classes are sponsored by community colleges or organizations that serve deaf people (such as the Hearing and Speech Agency in Baltimore). If these institutions do not make courses available to the public, they may be able to refer you to a deaf individual who would be willing to tutor on a private basis or teach a group of homeschoolers. With a bit of research, you should be able to locate a setting in which your family can learn sign language in an actual class.
It may be, however, that sign language classes are unavailable or inconvenient for your family. Since sign is such a visual, fluid language, it is next to impossible to learn from books alone. Fortunately, there are many good instructional materials available on videotape or CD-ROM for learning both signed English and ASL. For a family that simply wants to learn signed English, there are many more resources than I can name; however, I believe one of the best for middle school and above would be the Signing Exact English software program (Harris Communications). My favorite (and one that would be a must for high school students wanting to learn ASL for credit) is the Signing Naturally video curriculum (Dawn Sign Press).
The Signing Naturally curriculum is rather extensive and somewhat pricey, so families who are not quite interested in the depth this program provides will probably want to consider other resources. These would include the video program Learning American Sign Language (Gallaudet University Bookstore) or the Instant Immersion in American Sign Language computer program (Harris Communications). Some homeschoolers like the Ready! Set! Sign! CD-ROM program (Ready! Set! Sign!). True American Sign Language materials are exceptionally difficult to find for the very young, but I particularly enjoy the Signing Time (3 volumes) and the Sign-Me-a-Story videos (Amazon.com). With a little research, you should have no difficulty finding the instructional materials that will be just right for your family.
Whether sign language becomes a hobby or a habit, there is no doubt that your family will enjoy and benefit from studying this fascinating way to communicate. Who knows? Perhaps the next time you see deaf people in conversation, instead of simply watching them, you may actually be able to join them!
- Dawn Sign Press, 6130 Nancy Ridge Drive, San Diego, CA 92121-3223; 858-625-0600; www.dawnsign.com. Vendor of Signing Naturally video curriculum.
- Gallaudet University Bookstore, Bison Shop, Gallaudet University, 800 Florida Avenue NE, Washington, DC 20002; 202-651-5271; http://bookstore.gallaudet.edu. Vendor of Learning American Sign Language video curriculum.
- Harris Communications, 15155 Technology Drive, Eden Prairie, MN 55344-2277; 800-825-6758; www.harriscomm.com. Vendor of Signing Exact English and Instant Immersion in American Sign Language software programs.
- Ready! Set! Sign! software program, P. O. Box 6676, Arlington, VA 22206-6676; www.readysetsign.com.
*This article first published March 8, 2008.
Jean Soyke has a master's degree in elementary education, and she taught in Maryland schools. She left professional education in 1989 to homeschool her four children. Jean wrote several homeschool curriculum manuals, spoke at conferences, and served on the boards of two state homeschooling organizations before "retiring" from homeschooling. She now works full-time as an Education Counselor for the Calvert School.