Unless you live in a very small town and never watch the telly, you have surely laid eyes on people who, through gestures and facial expression, enjoy lively conversation.
Well, at least it looks lively; certainly livelier than mere speaking.
Indeed, sign language is a fairly energetic undertaking; it involves much of your body – not just hands and arms.
Wouldn’t you like to know how complex ideas can be conveyed without uttering a single word? How about being able to understand the concepts illustrated by those fluid gestures?
Learning to sign involves equal parts of making the correct movements and building receptive skills – correctly ‘receiving’ the ideas conveyed through gestures and expressions.
Sign language is communication on a whole different level, one that hearing people seem little aware of. And if there is awareness, it is more of an abstract variety.
For hearing people and for much of the world, sign language is what deaf people do, just like Chinese people speak Chinese and French people speak French.
Bet you didn’t know that there is a French sign language for French people who are deaf!
There is so much about deaf culture, deaf history and the deaf community that the average person hasn’t even considered.
Your Superprof hopes to remedy that situation by showing you how learning to sign can benefit you even if you are not hearing-impaired. We’d also like to point you to classes for learning sign language, and tips and resources so you can learn better and faster.
Put on your noise-cancelling headphones and read on!
The Advantages of Learning Sign Language
Let’s forget for a moment that an experienced sign language interpreter can earn upwards of £30,000 per year, that the job often involves travel (usually at your clients’ expense) and that you will always learn new things.
We’d like to put a very personal reason for learning how to sign in the spotlight.
When infants arch their backs, they are communicating that they want to be picked them up.
If you have ever been around a baby that’s even a couple of months old, you might have witnessed such a thing: the child, laying on its back, looks up at the adult face hovering over him (he can’t really see at that stage), and arches his back.
Isn’t it remarkable how much easier that makes it to slide your hands under and lift him?
If you are around babies a lot or if you have a baby, you must have noticed that your child learned early how to communicate: this cry means ‘hungry’ and that one means ‘nappy change, please!’
All of this early communication is a subject of much wonder and awe… but what does the average parent do with it? Besides cherishing, nothing. We wait for a year for our children to become verbal.
That is a lot of wasted time.
If you want to see for yourself how powerful and influential sign language can be, why not teach your child baby sign language?
Studies have shown that children who were taught to sign as babies generally perform better in school, suffer lower levels of stress, are more confident and can express themselves better.
Sign language offers you those same benefits, along with those you might enjoy by learning any other language.
You will find yourself multi-tasking like a pro, thinking at lightning speed and delighting in the boost to your memory. You will become more focused, with unparalleled attention to detail and still have brainpower to spare.
Can you imagine how these advantages of learning sign language will play out in your career?
Finding Sign Language Classes
Whether you are excited at the prospect of signing for your child or yourself, the best way to learn sign language is to take a sign language course.
You might think you could hop on Duolingo or any other language learning app or website and get plenty of instruction to learn sign language; there are three main reasons that you shouldn’t.
- Will you learn the right sign language?
- How will you know you’re signing correctly?
- How can you develop the needed receptive skills?
You may have already tried typing ‘learn sign language’ into your favourite search engine and, surely, you’ve gotten many returns. Do any of them specifically say British sign language or BSL?
Most likely, unless you specified you wanted to learn BSL, most – if not all of the hits returned were for ASL or American sign language. In fact, those sites may not even specify that their materials are for American sign!
You might wonder how different those languages could be; after all, both countries speak mainly English.
Let us assure you that even the alphabets are not the same and, as radically different as they are, you couldn’t so much as finger-spell your name and be understood in Britain!
Even if you searched specifically for BSL lessons online, you may learn quite a bit but, with nobody to sign with or to, how will you determine that you are communicating correctly?
And what about interpreting what someone else is signing? If you get no practice conversing in sign, you may never be able to hold a conversation with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing.
That is why your Superprof stands firm on taking a sign language class, where you can meet fellow signers, learn all of the vocabulary particular to your area – yes, sign language is regional, just like spoken dialect is.
We’ve highlighted some of the best courses in the country in our companion article.
Resources and Apps to Learn Sign Language
If you are keen to start signing as soon as possible, you only have one recourse: practise as often as you can.
You could stand in front of a mirror for hours on end, holding conversations with your reflection or you could make use of the very best resource available to anyone learning to sign.
Why not enjoy the warm welcome that the deaf community provides?
All across the UK, there are deaf clubs where people get together, often socially but sometimes for a specific purpose – think ‘England Deaf Football’, for a convivial evening of signing and fun. Anyone who can sign, hearing or not, is welcome to join them.
The deaf and hard of hearing are truly your best help for learning sign language (and they’re great people to be around, too!) but there are more resources for you.
You might want a sign language dictionary to download to your phone or watch some sign language videos between classes, just to pick up on particular facial expressions that go with certain signs or that are associated uniquely with sign languages.
You may even want to find some fingerspelling exercises and games so you can practise that skills set!
All of that can be had online, with one caveat: make sure you are targeting British sign language resources, not some foreign language!
Perhaps it would be best to check out the resources and apps we found…
Tips to Help You Learn Sign Language
We leave you now with some ideas to consider as you learn this visual language.
The first, most vital tip to learning how to sign is to abandon the idea that signing is only for deaf people.
In fact, it would be a good idea to educate yourself about deafness – for instance, did you know that deaf people, for the most part, do not particularly want to become 'hearing'?
You might spend some time with deaf students to see how their lessons are taught and learn about deaf education in general.
Learning sign language without immersing yourself into the deaf community is a little like learning French without ever going to France or having any exposure to French culture, French people or French society.
You can learn the words but, without understanding the culture, your expressions will lack depth and you will surely miss out on the context of what is being said.
By the same token, don’t just learn the sign language alphabet and claim you can sign; that’s a bit like someone who says they speak French and then blurts out the famous line from the Lady Marmelade song…
Besides ridding yourself of preconceived notions about deaf people and immersing yourself into the deaf community, we offer these tips:
- Understand what sign language is: this expressive, gestural form of communication is not a word-for-word translation of your native language
- Beware of online tutorials; they may not be in British sign language
- Choose your teacher well: some prefer an instructor who can speak and sign; others contend it is better to have a deaf instructor who has been signing since childhood
- Practise every day by seeking opportunities to engage with the deaf community: talk with deaf children, go to deaf club meetings and participate in activities with people who are deaf and hard of hearing.
Whatever your reason(s) for taking up sign language – because someone in your circle or your hearing demands it, you’ve been studying linguistics or because you are simply interested in language acquisition, we applaud you and encourage your studies by offering more tips for learning sign language.
Won’t you let us know how your language studies are coming along?