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Challenges of Learning Sign Language

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Updated June 15, 2014

Is learning sign language too hard? In my personal opinion and experience, it depends on what type of sign language you are trying to learn. If you are trying to learn sign language for communication purposes, it is not too hard. If you are trying to learn sign language as a language, it can be difficult.

I know from personal experience the difficulty of learning sign language as a language. For a short time, I was an employee of Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. As a new employee, I was required to take an American Sign Language class. I had a hard time in the class because no matter how hard I tried, my brain was too set in "thinking straight English" to be able to adjust to the different grammar challenges of American Sign Language.

About.com readers were asked if they thought learning sign language was too hard. Many responses were posted, and what follows is an edited sampling of reader responses to the blog post, "Is Learning Sign Language Too Hard?"

"Learning any new language comes with its challenges. One that comes to mind is: Learning a language that does not provide auditory information to the student who relies heavily on this stream of information is that much more challenging. Can it be done? Yes. Can one become fluent? Yes. Are all hearing parents the most effective and appropriate language role model of ASL? Bo."
- Lynn

"I am a hearing parent of a deaf child. I had limited experiences with deaf[ness] before my daughter was diagnosed. I was told to 'not embarrass yourself or the child by signing in public' and that she could learn to talk to get along in the hearing world. When she started creating baby signs to communicate, I gave in to sign language to be able to communicate with my child. I have since went back to college, got the degree and became a certified interpreter. Is it hard to learn sign language? I guess so, I'm still learning. Was all my hard work worth it? You better believe it! My daughter and I have a very close relationship...to this day, I have young deaf adults coming to me to explain something that their parents never did. I am proud that my daughter was able to learn from me and not have to depend on a teacher or an interpreter to explain life to her."
- Gina

"I’m deaf (not Deaf) and found learning sign language difficult. I took a basic course when I was 13 years old and, since I was the only student, I had nobody to practice with. Despite learning basic signs, I found it very difficult to speak in ASL. I understand better when someone else speaks to me in ASL in an average speed. ASL in a social aspect is too overwhelming for me with the fast speeds it has. It is for me the same as trying to hear a single word from a radio station."
- Niq

"It’s never easy to learn an additional language, especially after 13 or 14, but it was a lot easier for us to learn ASL than for our daughter to learn English…"
- Charlie

"Yeah it is hard to learn ASL -- as with any language. As a parent, if you really care about your child you will learn ASL -- you don’t have to get to an interpreter level, but you have to learn. How can you not want to communicate with your kids?"
- Robert

Research on the Difficulty of Learning Sign Language

The question of how difficult it is to learn sign language has been addressed in formal research studies. One such study,"What's So Hard about Learning ASL?: Students'& Teachers' Perceptions" was published in Sign Language Studies, issue number 75, Summer 1992. The study found that teachers felt it was more difficult than their students did.

Another, similar article in American Annals of the Deaf, Volume 143, No. 3, 1998, "Why is learning sign language a challenge?" looked at how some people mistakenly believe sign language is "easy" to learn. One reason for this belief is that some signs are simple, like "eat." The truth, as the abstract for this article points out, is that "Like all languages, it is not mastered easily beyond a basic level."

Related on About.com: Parents Not Learning Sign Language
Brown Student Researching Parents Not Learning Sign

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