How to Learn Basic Conversational Sign Language (for Beginners)

Basic sign language takes around 60-90 hours to grasp. It does take a lot more time to master it and an effective course can speed up things.
So you want to learn basic conversational sign language? You might be inspired by a desire to better comprehend deaf friends, converse with hearing-impaired relatives, or express yourself after suffering from hearing loss. Attending in-person sessions is the quickest, most effective way to learn American Sign Language (ASL), regardless of what reasons you may have. Having said that, we have put together a basic guide for you to learn some quick conversational phrases to help you get started.
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Do you intend to study sign language? If so, you might be astonished to find that it only takes 60 to 90 hours to acquire the fundamentals of ASL (American Sign Language). Comparatively, it can take three to six months to acquire a new spoken language like French.

Learning American Sign Language (ASL) is a great place to start if you want to expand your linguistic horizons. Additionally, becoming familiar with ASL can help you expand your job options.

All U.S. businesses are mandated by law to provide ASL interpreters upon request for customers, coworkers, and potential employees, thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Therefore, even if you don't intend to make a career out of interpreting, learning ASL can make you stand out as a valuable asset to potential employers.

Related: How to Get Hired From a Community College

In this guide, we will teach you some basic sign language and also suggest an excellent resource to help you get started if you are serious about learning.

Interested in learning conversational sign language for beginners?

Unmudl has a proven course to get you started!

How to learn basic conversational sign language

In Deaf communities, sign language is frequently utilized instead of spoken language since some people with hearing loss were raised only using sign language to interact with family and friends. 

Of course, everyone may learn this magnificent, expressive language, regardless of whether they have any hearing ability. ASL is one of the most commonly used sign languages in the world, thus learning it has additional advantages. Therefore, we'll look at some of the most effective strategies to start here.

In ASL, to convey what people want to communicate, hand gestures and shapes, as well as facial expressions and lip movements, are used.

Sign Language interpreter using sign language or conversation with a mute/deaf person
Photo by SHVETS production from Pexels

What is ASL?

American Sign Language (ASL) is a full, natural language with English-like syntax that shares many of the same linguistic characteristics as spoken languages. 

Hand and face gestures are used to convey meaning in ASL. Many deaf and hard-of-hearing people in North America use it as their primary language.

Does sign language differ in other countries?

No single sign language exists worldwide. Different nations or regions utilize various sign languages. 

For instance, British Sign Language (BSL), which is distinct from American Sign Language (ASL), may be difficult for Americans to understand. Some nations incorporate ASL elements into their native sign languages.

How to learn sign language

When learning American Sign Language, you must become proficient in a total of 26 different ASL hand gestures. But when we state that learning ASL can take just 60 to 90 hours, we merely mean that this is roughly how long it takes to remember the ASL alphabet.

You'll also need to master 19 various hand gestures and a variety of facial expressions if you want to start communicating in sign language. The most crucial thing is that you need to start interacting frequently with actual deaf people.

1. Take a sign language class

To get a head start, it is possible to study fundamentals like the ASL alphabet. However, mastering ASL on your own is not really possible. You will want professional education and practice if you want to start having meaningful discussions in ASL.

We highly recommend the course below if you want to get a quick solid foundation built in ASL.

Logo of SUNY Broome community College

SUNY Broome: Basic Conversational Sign Language

Introductory course to sign language: This introductory course in sign language aims to increase students' understanding of the language used by the deaf and hard of hearing as well as their expressive and receptive finger-spelling abilities. Recommended for anybody who may be interested, including business and industry professionals, educators, assistants, coworkers, friends, and family.

Related: Are Community Colleges Accredited?

2. Ask your Deaf family and friends to teach you

A great way to get started is by asking a Deaf friend or family member to teach you sign language. Asking friends or family who are already proficient in sign language to teach you some signs may also help you and them both avoid some of the difficulties when communicating with Deaf people.

Before inquiring, make sure your friend or relative uses sign language because not all people with hearing loss are familiar with it.

3. Use a sign language teaching App

Anyone with an iPhone, Android smartphone, or tablet can practice ASL skills and learn the fundamentals thanks to modern technology. While there are many apps out there the most popular one is The ASL App.

Conversational ASL is the main focus of THE ASL APP. The ASL App is meant to make learning simple, accessible, and enjoyable. It includes more than 2,500 signs and sentences, easy navigation, and features with many signers. 

You can go into slow mode, store favorite signs (or signs you want to practice more), and tap/scrub whenever you want to pause or advance the video

4. Learn the 100 basic sign language words

You must be familiar with some fundamental words before you can start speaking. Therefore, when learning ASL for the first time, focus on learning the fundamentals, such as "hello," "thank you," and "please."

You can start having conversations as soon as you learn a few frequently used words.

Basic Sign language words
Basic Sign Language Words

5. Learn the sign language alphabet

When learning American Sign Language, it is essential to become familiar with the ASL alphabet. You'll be able to sign any word if you know the alphabet. Therefore, you may simply spell out a sign if you forget it.

Try spelling everyday things like H-U-N-G-R-Y or H-A-P-P-Y to improve your fingerspelling skills.

Alphabets for Sign Language
Alphabets for Sign Language

6. Start conversations

Don't hesitate to strike up conversations and begin signing right away! Don't be afraid to approach other ASL users as soon as you are familiar with some fundamental words and the alphabet. 

Any language can be learned through conversation. Many language learners make the error of delaying communication with others for too long.

7. Join the local Deaf community or find a practice partner

You need other people to engage in conversation with. Local Deaf communities can be found in most cities and villages. Attend gatherings and surround yourself with sign language experts.

Try searching online for a practice partner if you reside distant from a large metropolis (e.g. in Facebook groups). You can talk to your friend through video calls.

8. Be mindful of an unsteady learning curve

Remember that everyone experiences bad days. You can feel as though you've forgotten all the signs some days and that you're not moving forward. Do not let these feelings sap your motivation. 

Contrary to popular belief, learning does not progress in a linear fashion. Although it's frequently difficult when you are learning a new language, your skills slowly improve over time.

9. Find your favorite YouTuber

Learn sign language online. Find your preferred channels on social media. Being around ASL will speed up your learning and make it more enjoyable!

Some popular Deaf YouTube channels are:

10. Set clear objectives

Setting daily, weekly, or monthly goals may help you feel more motivated. Here are a few examples of setting goals:

  • Learn 3 new signs every day
  • Have one weekly conversation in sign language
  • Each month, pick up 20 new words

11. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes

Children often pick things up more quickly than adults since they don't fear making mistakes. 

One of the most crucial aspects of learning is experiencing failure. However, the majority of us as adults feel self-conscious and feel that we shouldn't make mistakes. Don't be reluctant to slip up. Be more nave and you'll learn more quickly. No one will judge you.

Two women conversing in Sign language
Photo by SHVETS production from Pexels
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How does spoken language compare to ASL?

English and ASL are two very different languages. It has all the essential components of language, including its own rules for word construction, word order, and pronunciation. 

Languages differ in the ways they signal different functions, such as asking a question rather than making a statement, this is true of all languages. 

For instance, English speakers might pose a question by changing the word order and pitch of their voices, while ASL users might raise their eyebrows, open their eyes, and lean forward.

Similar to other languages, ASL has a wide range of specialized ways to communicate concepts, just like ASL users. ASL features regional accents and dialects in addition to individual variances in expression. 

Just as certain English phrases are spoken differently in different regions of the country, there are regional distinctions in the rhythm of signing, pronunciation, slang, and signs used in ASL. Similar to spoken languages, ASL usage can be influenced by additional socioeconomic factors like age and gender, which can add to its diversity.

Etiquette for Sign Language

Wait for the speaker to complete signing and glance at you to indicate that it is your turn to talk when you are the receiver in an ASL conversation. 

A speaker may occasionally look away from the audience as they consider the following sign. The speaker isn't done yet and will continue in a moment if they look away. Here are some more etiquette to keep in mind when conversing with Deaf people.

1. Having an argument

When someone else is signing, a receiver will occasionally glance away and start to sign back, essentially interrupting the speaker. 

Usually, the participants in such a discourse need to get along well with one another in order for the behavior to not be disrespectful. This strategy is frequently used in heated conversations and fights.

2. He said/ She said

Sometimes ASL users will turn and sign to a fictitious person. They do this to allude to a conversation they either had or overheard with another person. The idea is the same as using "he said/she said" in English discourse. 

Although it may appear as though the speaker is suddenly speaking to someone else, hearing individuals learning sign language should continue to pay attention as a receiver.

3. Moving between people signing

If you need to move past two deaf persons using sign language, it isn't impolite, according to Dr. Bill Vicars (head of a business that specializes in developing American Sign Language programs and learning experiences).

It's ideal to move through at a steady speed so as to minimize interruptions to the speakers' dialogue.

4. Signing in other non-ASL sign languages

ASL users occasionally use signs created for other sign languages. Others who speak ASL make an effort to avoid using these signals because they think it muddles the language. 

The prescriptive approach and the descriptive approach are the two methods that Dr. Vicars discusses for teaching ASL. 

An instructor who forbids his pupils from using a certain sign is being prescriptive; he is instructing ASL in accordance with his conviction that the language must stay pure and uncontaminated by other tongues. 

Whether or not they are a part of the vocabulary and grammar of pure ASL, a teacher who employs the descriptive method demonstrates to his students the signs now used in the Deaf Community.

Words and grammar in sign language

Typically, a topic-comment structure is used in ASL sentences. Similar to an English sentence's subject, an ASL sentence's topic is its main idea. Topicalization is the process of making your sentence's object the subject. 

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Here are some basic grammar rules in ASL:

Pronouns

A pronoun, such as I, you, he, or she, is frequently the subject of an ASL phrase. A subject pronoun may be signed at the start, end, or both of a sentence by an ASL speaker. 

For instance, you could sign "I employee," "employee I," or "I employee I" to sign "I am an employee" in ASL. In ASL, each of the three is grammatically valid.

Tenses

Only at the beginning of a conversation do you need to establish the tense. You would sign "yesterday" at the start of your first sentence and continue from there if you wanted to tell a lengthy story about what you did yesterday. 

Your receivers will be aware that whatever you sign belongs in that time until you signal a different tense once you've chosen one. Depending on when a dialogue occurs, tenses can change. 

In English, you might say "Today I ate lunch at a restaurant" or "I'm going to eat lunch at a restaurant this afternoon." 

According to the current time, you may sign in ASL, "now afternoon I eat lunch," and the audience would understand the tense. They would be aware that you were discussing future plans if you had spoken with them in the morning. 

On the other hand, if you were speaking at night, they would be aware that you were discussing your previous day's activities.

Talking about event chains

ASL speakers can use the space in front of and behind them to depict a timeline when discussing a sequence of events. 

Events that occurred recently or will occur soon are predicted by indications that are close to the body, whereas events that occurred in the past or will occur in the future are predicted by signs that are farther away.

The verb ‘to be’

There are no other forms of the verb "to be" in ASL. If someone were to communicate in ASL, they would not say, "I am hungry," but rather sign it while nodding. 

You would sign "I hungry" and shake your head to indicate that you are not hungry. Typically, when signing a statement, you shake your head to contradict a condition and nod to affirm it. 

ASL speakers only employ verbs with the tenses "to be" while discussing English (or any other comparable language).

Final Word

We hope this has been of some help in your journey toward learning sign language. You can discover nearby or online resources to learn sign language now that you have a foundation in doing so! 

If you are confused or struggling don’t panic. It’s natural./ Sign language is just like learning any other language, it takes time. Remember to look into the course we suggested above to build a good foundation in sign language. 

Enjoy your learning experience and interact with other sign language users. You'll be well on your way to meeting new people, communicating with them, and improving your language skills!

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