Why Is Learning American Sign Language a Challenge?

By Kemp, Mike | American Annals of the Deaf, July 1998 | Go to article overview

Why Is Learning American Sign Language a Challenge?


Kemp, Mike, American Annals of the Deaf


In recent years there has been an explosion of interest in American Sign Language (ASL), the language used by Deaf Americans. As a result, an unprecedented number of schools and agencies now offer ASL classes. This welcome development signals growing awareness of and respect for the American Deaf community and ASL. Unfortunately, misconceptions persist about ASL. One major misconception is that it is an easily learned, picture-like language. This understanding is due partly to the fact that some of the first basic signs learned may be thought of as iconic (e.g., signs for eat, sleep, and drink). This even leads some new ASL learners to believe they can become instructors after one or two classes. This mistake is not made among people learning a spoken language. ASL is a complete and complex language, with all the nuances and subtleties of a spoken language. Like all languages, it is not mastered easily beyond a basic level. Mastery requires extensive exposure and practice. Presently, there is no consensus on where ASL might fall on a learnability continuum for native English speakers. Nonetheless, this article posits that learning ASL should be approached with respect and with the knowledge that mastery only occurs over a substantial period of time.

The true intent of this paper is not to discourage people from learning ASL but to help ASL learners do a reality check. The public has the general impression that it is very easy to learn ASL, but that is not the case. Rhonda Jacobs, who wrote "Just How Hard Is It to Learn ASL: The Case for ASL as a Truly Foreign Sign Language," recalled an incident:

One deaf friend, who learned to sign as an adult, when asked how long it takes to learn to sign, responded "Oh, it's easy - took me two weeks." I stopped breathing for a moment as I reached to pick my heart up off the floor (1996).

Not only should ASL learners experience a reality check, but ASL teachers need to realize the difficulties of successfully teaching the target language. To make matters worse, a great number of people who take two or three ASL classes want to become teachers of ASL. I have received numerous telephone and letter inquiries on how to teach ASL from people all over the USA.

Many people have called me at my office to inform me that they just took one ASL class and now they want to know how to teach the language.

ASL has been established as a distinctive language separated from other languages. It contains the linguistic components that constitute a sophisticated, independent language. Just how challenging it is to master ASL? Let us consider how long it takes native English speakers to learn other spoken languages. As discussed by Jacobs, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and Defense Language Institute (DLI) have grouped languages into four categories in terms their level of difficulty for native English speakers to learn. The degree of difficulty is based on how long it takes to learn the target language before reaching a proficiency level of 2 on a scale of 0 - 5 in the Language Proficiency Interview (LPI). Speaking Proficiency Levels are as follows:

Speaking 0+ (Memorized Proficiency)

Speaking 1 (Elementary Proficiency)

Speaking 1+ (Speaking Proficiency, Plus)

Speaking 2 (Limited Working Proficiency)

Speaking 2+ (Limited Working Proficiency, Plus)

Speaking 3 (General Professional Proficiency)

Speaking 3+ (General Professional Proficiency, Plus)

Speaking 4 (Advanced Professional Proficiency)

Speaking 4+ (Advanced Professional Proficiency, Plus)

Speaking 5 (Functionally Native Proficiency).

Commonly taught foreign languages (Spanish, French, Italian, and German) are the easiest for English speakers to learn, and therefore are in the Category I as determined by the FSI and DLI. The other three categories are rated as more difficult for English speakers to learn (see Figure 1). …

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