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Sign Language Basics

Getting Started in Sign Language

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Updated March 29, 2011

I Love You in ASL

I Love You in ASL

Photo © Jamie Berke

Welcome to Sign Language Basics.

Whether you are a beginner, or a more experienced signer, there is something here for you. Find resources on learning sign language, learn about different types of sign languages, become familiar with the history and popularity of sign language, and more.

Sign Language Alphabet

The first step in learning sign language is usually learning the sign language alphabet, also known as the manual alphabet.

Learning Sign Language

Once you have moved beyond the sign language alphabet, there are many resources for learning sign language. Resources available include online and print sign language dictionaries, and classroom instruction.

Sign Language Books

There are sign language books for both children and adults. About.com has some lists of suggested books for babies, children and for adults.

Different Flavors of Sign Language

Sign language comes in multiple flavors. Some people sign "true American Sign Language," which is a language with its own grammar and syntax. Others use a form of sign language that mimics the English language as closely as possible, Signed Exact English (SEE). Still others, including myself, use a form of sign language that combines English with American Sign Language (ASL), known as Pidgin Sign Language (PSE).

Sign language is also used differently in education. Some schools may use a philosophy known as Total Communication, which means using all means to communicate, not just sign language. Others believe in using sign language to teach children English, a philosophy known as bilingual bicultural (Bi-Bi).

History and Popularity of Sign Language

American Sign Language has a long history behind it. In addition, at one time, sign language use was dealt a severe blow by a historic event known as Milan 1880.

Popularity of Sign Language

Sign language survives, no matter what new hearing or assistive technology comes along. There will always be a need for sign language, and its popularity has held and even grown. Sign language is offered as a foreign language in schools, and these schools often have sign language clubs.

Hearing Sign Language Users

Who else needs sign language? Many deaf people need sign language, but so do many others who are not deaf. In fact, there has been discussion in the deaf and hard of hearing community about substituting the term "signing community" for the term "deaf community." Non-deaf users of sign language include hearing babies, nonverbal people who can hear but can not talk, and even gorillas or chimpanzees.

Practice and Discuss Sign Language

What good does it do to learn sign language if you do not practice it? Like any language, if you do not use it, you lose it. The deaf or signing community offers many opportunities to do so. You can usually learn about such opportunities by contacting a local resource center for deaf and hard of hearing people or a hearing and speech center. For example, signing people enjoy going to silent or ASL dinners and coffee chats.

Discuss Sign Language

About.com Deafness has a discussion forum with a sign language topic for people to post and answer questions about sign language.

Sign Language Fun and Expression

Sign language can also be used to have fun, playing games and being creative with the language. Examples include sign language games, creating sign language names, "writing" ASL poetry, idioms, and even a written form of sign language.

International Sign Language

Sign language in America is not the same as sign language used around the world. Most countries have their own form of sign language, such as Australia (Auslan).

Readers Respond: Learning Sign Language

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