Spaniards speak Spanish, French people speak French and deaf people use sign language.

Wait… what?

Spaniards are not the only people who speak Spanish, French is not relegated only to those who live in France and sign language is most certainly not the exclusive purview of the deaf or hard of hearing.

People’s tendency to pigeonhole language skills in such a way is unfortunately all too common. It is also dead-wrong: there is a good chance that you, possibly considered among the ‘hearing’, have signed without being aware that you were, in fact, signing.

In these few lines, Superprof has laid out one of the major stumbling blocks to language learning: preconceived notions.

There are others, and we will lay them all out for you in this article, along with tips for learning how to sign more quickly and accurately.

Common Myths About Sign Language

No one could blame you for believing – as the majority of people do, that sign language is only for the hearing impaired. After all, sign language generally isn’t offered in schools, even if Parliament debated including it in the National Curriculum just a few years ago.

For the record: it was not made a part of the curriculum but schools may offer courses in sign language, along with other languages, if they so choose.

The idea that sign language ‘belongs’ to a subset of the population, namely the deaf community, and that ‘hearing’ people don’t need to learn sign language is perhaps one of the most limiting and hurtful myths about signing.

Deaf people are very proud of the language that they have designed to serve their communication needs – yes, it was deaf people who built a whole language, and they are very proud of it. They would love for you to join them in expressing yourself in their unique way.

That kills another common myth about sign language: that it was invented by ‘hearing’ people.

As a signer, you can only sign in the language you know
Your British sign language studies will not qualify you to speak with every deaf person in the world Image by stokpic from Pixabay

Here’s another strange idea that should disappear: that sign language is universal.

Fact is, there are around 300 different sign languages ‘spoken’ all over the world and, while some bear similarities, in no way could they be considered one and the same.

And even more to the point: although the average Brit on holiday in the US can understand the dialect and make himself understood, someone signing in BSL (British sign language) would not be understood by someone proficient in American sign language (ASL).

Even stranger: American sign language bears more similarities with French sign language (LSF) than it does with British sign language. That’s because ASL started as an offshoot of LSF – but soon grew away from its French signing roots.

Sign language reflects the culture it develops in.

For that reason, American signs today reflect a mixed cultural heritage. No worries, though: we Brits had a minimal impact on ASL via Martha’s Vineyard sign language… but that was a long time ago.

Two more common myths about sign language that you should dispel if you intend to learn this method of communication: it employs only the hands and it is easy to learn.

Sign language is a complex form of communication that incorporates facial expression and body movement as well as those hand gestures that flow so gracefully.

And, just like any other language, it is a challenge to learn. However, unlike traditional languages, the grammar, syntax and vocabulary of sign language are completely different and constantly evolving.

With these misleading ideas dispelled, let’s pick up on the best suggestions for learning this language.

Understand What Sign Language Is

If you were to learn French, German or any other spoken language, you would learn direct translations for words that are so familiar in English.

You would learn grammar that may or may not be wildly different than your own – easier or harder. Learning word order would also be paramount, such as reversing the verb and subject to ask a question. You will not have these difficulties when learning sign language.

Sign language is not a direct, word for word translation of anyone’s native language.

For example, if you wanted to ask your deaf mate if s/he enjoys travelling by train, you might sign ‘train travel, you like?’ rather than ‘do you like to travel by train?’

Our guess is, the more you learn about sign language, you too will realise that this method of communicating is far more efficient – and far more expressive than our spoken languages.

Sign language is not just a matter of language acquisition
Far more than just a language program you adopt when your doctor says you're deaf, signing stands for community Image by williamsje1 from Pixabay

Choosing Your Teacher

Would you believe that, more often than not, teachers of sign language are not people whose primary means of communication is signing?

Admittedly, there are advantages to learning a language from someone who had to learn the language themselves, the main one being that those teachers know how students must struggle, and which aspects of the language they would likely struggle with.

On the other hand, experts advocate that, if you want to learn a second language, you should learn it from a native speaker of that language.

Why should sign language be any different?

Avoid YouTube

Not altogether, of course, just the sign language tutorial videos – especially those put together by people who themselves are learning sign language.

If you conduct a search on YouTube for British Sign Language, you will be met with a collection of videos made by a variety of well-meaning folks who only want to share their knowledge of this lovely visual language.

Too bad that, in some of them, the speaker’s hands aren’t fully visible!

In fact, most of those videos are made by people who talk their way through the lesson – with their voice, not through signing.

One exception we could find was the video series posted by Exeter Deaf Academy. If you must watch videos to reinforce your sign language lessons, please let these be it.

Also discover apps and resources to help you learn sign language more thoroughly...

Use It Every Chance You Get

Just like learning a spoken foreign language, you must use your sign language skills as often and as widely as possible. Hopefully, not by making well-intentioned videos…

You may perhaps join a social group; a deaf club or even a deaf football club, if you like a little football. Putting yourself in situations where you must use your signing skills in a safe and friendly environment is a great to gain fluency while signing as well as honing your receptive skills.

Whatever your reasons for learning how to sign, inevitably, you will come in contact with people who are deaf and hard of hearing who, for the most part, will be happy to welcome you into their world.

Are you ready for a whole new level of friendship?

Sign language does not mirror spoken English
Feeling like an outsider in the hearing world is part of the deaf history and culture Image by Couleur from Pixabay

Understand Deaf Culture

The deaf culture is deep, multi-faceted and unique in the sense that it exists within the mainstream culture but almost completely separate of it.

Deafness is invisible – you can’t tell by looking at someone that they are deaf.

Often, deaf people must declare their condition when interacting with the general public; maybe by asking the speaker to enunciate clearly so that they might read their lips.

Confronted with an other-abled person, people of the hearing world might not immediately accept that deaf people are fully functioning human beings with feelings, skills and abilities all their own.

It is imperative that you understand that deaf people do not see their deafness as a disability; for many of them, it represents merely a difference in the human experience.

Seen in that light, hearing people lag a ways behind their deaf counterparts, don’t they?

The very perception that deaf people are disabled is dismissive of deaf history – everything that deaf people have achieved over centuries, and continue to achieve today.

Take Sign Language Classes

You might think this is an odd suggestion but you might be surprised at the number of people who find sign language learning materials – books, PDF sheet and videos online, and set about practising on their own.

Beyond learning the sign language alphabet and maybe fingerspelling, you cannot learn sign language properly on your own; you must have a receptive audience to gauge your facial expressions and movements to ensure you learn each sign properly.

And you must have people signing to you so that you can learn to correctly interpret signs.

Another good reason to take sign language courses is that you will be sure that you are learning the right sign language for where you live instead of inadvertently learning American sign language through the abundance of that language’s materials available online.

Whichever reason(s) you have for learning a new language – especially sign language, we applaud your aim.

You may consider a career as a sign language interpreter or working with deaf children – maybe even teaching a class of deaf students like they do at Gallaudet University in the US!

The good news is that you don’t have to be adept at linguistics to learn sign language; because sign language is, in many ways, natural language.

Soon, you too will discover the advantages of learning sign language

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A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.