Why I Learned American Sign Language & You Should Too [Updated!]
I truly feel it’s important for others (especially communicators and marketers) to understand how learning and using other languages such as American Sign Language (ASL) can benefit how you communicate, with others and better your life overall.
At age four, I began learning ASL as my second language because my brother is Deaf / hard-of-hearing. As time went by, I became out of practice and wanted to make sure I could continue to communicate with him and others in the Deaf Community well into our adult lives. A few years ago I started taking classes again, and with that, the meaning of understanding and using ASL all came back to me.
Deaf Culture & American Sign Language
First recognized in 1965, Deaf Culture is perhaps the most important reason to learn American Sign Language. One of the key pieces in founding this culture was this community’s first written account in the Dictionary of American Sign Language by William Stokoe, Carl Croneberg, and Dorothy Casterline. Language and culture very naturally have a symbiotic relationship, as without language you cannot learn the culture and without culture, language has no reference. And, it was not until the Dictionary of American Sign Language was published that ASL was regarded as a real language.
The Value of ASL
ASL is the most valuable asset in regards to the Deaf Community. Not speaking (as in using no voice) is highly valued in this culture. Spoken English is technically useless to the Deaf. Even if they read lips, the understanding of English doesn’t really relate to ASL. If your ears do not work, why would you force them to hear? Although, some of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing choose other avenues to communicate with the hearing—ASL is regarded as the sole cultural norm for the Deaf.
In a recent post written by Maranda of The Maranda Show, she elaborated on this value with,
While this quote says a lot, I thought that the line in bold above was particularly interesting. It reminds me how my dad always says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Now while him saying this is out of complete stubbornness and dad-ism, I took it into a more philosophical context. Why do we look down on deaf people, or people with disabilities in general? Just because someone is different, does not mean they are broken. As a type one diabetic, this stuck with me. Even though they are two completely different types of disabilities, I can relate to being looked down on as a human being who simply just was born without a functioning organ… WHO CARES. We should embrace our differences and help those who have them.
Well said Maranda – YOU ROCK! You can also check out Maranda’s newfound journey with ASL on her blog, The Maranda Show.
A Few Rules for Behavior
So, with any culture, certain things differ when it comes to rudeness or appropriateness. Most of us are understanding of other cultures based on the basic morality and ethics of respecting one another’s differences. To help “fit in” a little better while using ASL, there are a few cultural rules you should keep in mind:
- As opposed to the hearing culture, you should stare. Losing eye contact with someone who’s signing to you is considered rude. It’d be like me putting my hands over my ears while you’re speaking to me.
- Unlike hearing culture, descriptive facial expression and body movement are necessary for ASL. It is actually a part of the grammar. Oftentimes, the expressions and movements are used to describe the emotion or provide additional meaning to the conversation.
- When introducing yourself, it is common to describe yourself in more ways than one. Where you live, your full name, where you’re from, or what school you attend are all common introductions. Because the Deaf Community is a smaller group of people it’s nice to enjoy commonalities. “Hey, I’m from Pittsburgh”—and these types of things are not so rare to share in a hearing conversation either.
- There are ways to express labels that may be better than others. This perhaps would never come up in a conversation but is a good-to-know. Sometimes in hearing culture, it’s common to see descriptions such as, “hard-of-hearing”, “deaf”, or “hearing impaired”. In Deaf Culture, however, there is only one label which is “Deaf”. This label actually has nothing to do with hearing loss but has to do with the culture itself.
- Note that there are many other Sign Languages, per different countries!
Benefits of Learning ASL
So, back to the story. Having learned another language and been exposed to a different culture growing up, I truly believe that these experiences have been attributed to the way I communicate as well as my compassion for others. However, understanding one another can be a challenge. Fortunately, learning another language proves very useful when one is presented with common challenges in communication by bringing your problem-solving and critical thinking skills to a new level. I know this is true. Let’s dig a bit deeper into some of the many reasons why we all should be learning this language.
- There are approximately 36 million hard of hearing and deaf people in the U.S. While not all of those people use ASL, many of them do. By learning this language, you’re now able to communicate with 17% more of the population than you could have before.
- Learning ASL literally causes you to open your eyes. Relying on different senses to communicate boosts your peripheral vision and trains you to become hyper-aware of your surroundings. Things that you had previously missed out on will now be within your reach.
- Many businesses say they are diverse—but are they? When you learn ASL your communication skills tend to extend beyond that of the Deaf Community and prepare you for handling other language barriers. Thus, actually creating a more diverse business environment and not another cliché.
- You truly become a better listener, communicator, and multitasker. When learning the structure of ASL, you learn how to constantly check to understand and reformulate ideas. The communication of ideas is more situation-oriented and specific—which are very valuable skills that non-signers often do not have the opportunity to develop.
- Are you super bad at spelling? Learn ASL! There’s even research that shows children who learn basic sign skills have improved spelling skills. Think of it this way: Your muscles have memory. So, when you associate a movement with a word or a letter—the benefits are massive here for your spelling and language skills. In addition to spelling, ASL also enhances other things in hearing people such as small motor skills, behavior, and widens vocabulary.
Note on Accessibility
If you have a website, it might be worth a few updates to show that you care about all of the people who keep you in business. Just showing that you’re trying, and taking the appropriate steps to become more accessible is everything. Accessibility is something that most of our population will benefit from.
Total sidebar…I got to meet Nyle DiMarco at the WPSD 150th Anniversary Gala. Ever since I’d seen him completely kick-ass while beautifully smizing his way to the top in America’s Next Top Model some years ago, I’ve been watching his career grow ever since. As a Deaf activist, he’s given many speeches about what it means to be Deaf today.
Benefits of Learning a Second Language
One NEA Research study explains that there are SO many benefits to learning a second language in general. (ASL counts!) I really suggest digging into this study, it’s very interesting and plays a huge role in why I teach my son ASL. Here’s a summary:
- Benefits academic progress
- Narrows achievement gaps
- Benefits basic skills development
- Benefits higher order, abstract and creative thinking
- Enriches and enhances cognitive development
- Enhances a student’s sense of achievement
- Helps students score higher on standardized tests
- Promotes cultural awareness and competency
- Improves chances of college acceptance, achievement, and attainment
- Enhances career opportunities
- Benefits understanding and security in the community and society
- Breaks down barriers
Even more benefits…
- Compared to those who speak one language, adults who speak multiple languages are more likely to:
- Be better listeners
- Be more creative
- Switch between tasks more quickly
- Have improved memorization and working memory
- Be able to pursue more long-term goals and delay immediate gratification
- Have increased attention, focus, and concentration
- Better understand others points of view
- Avoid falling for marketing schemes and hype
- Be more perceptive to what’s around them
- Score higher on tests
- Be better at decision making, prioritizing, and planning
- Have higher intelligence, in general
- Your English actually improves! While learning a new language, you become more aware of the grammar, conjugations, and sentence structure. Thus, having a better understanding of how any language is structured or manipulated.
- Another very interesting reason to learn another language is that some studies even show that learning another language can fight off Alzheimer’s and dementia.
The benefits are truly endless. Here are some final thoughts…
Learning another language (more specifically ASL) has improved my life. Just being able to know that I can have a conversation with my brother with or without actually saying a word and using ASL is amazing to me. I’m also able to see beyond words, discover new ways to solve challenges on the fly, and just enjoy having a conversation with someone that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to talk to.
Communication is so important in everything, especially in business. This learning process as a whole can open doors to new and better ideas on how to reach people and bring more value to the table. Just to be able to uniquely, and more creatively overcome challenges alone is worth investing your time in ASL. And to be able to communicate with 36 million more people—absolutely priceless!
ps. This post is dedicated and inspired 100% by my brother. Not only is he a great brother but also an amazing Uncle to my son. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have ever known that any of this was possible. He taught me that there are no limits, and the possibilities are endless. Love you, bro. I’d also like to thank the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf for helping me to continue my education in ASL.
Start Learning ASL
Editors note: I’m truly delighted to have had this post be one of the most read in the past few years. Today, I’m updating this post in light of National ASL Day. Since I’d first written this in 2017, we’ve had so many shares and people reaching out to connect for one reason or another. This is a special feeling to be able to still connect with others who have similar passions, hopes, and dreams – especially today. Happy learning, all. <3