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How to Pick Up American Sign Language Quickly

Using American Sign Language (ASL) with your Deaf friends is easy. You have natural signs and gestures to make your point, but you need to practice to really become proficient. Here are some of the things you can do if you want to pick up ASL a little more quickly:

  • Volunteer at a residential school for the Deaf or a local Deaf club. You can volunteer in a school's after-school recreation programs or special-event preparations. By interacting with Deaf students, teachers, and parents, you’ll measurably improve both your expressive signing (signing to others) and receptive signing (reading others’ signs).

    Deaf clubs usually have fundraising events fairly often. Helping at one of these fundraisers is a great opportunity to practice signing while helping others at the same time.

  • Attend Deaf social functions. These events can vary from sports activities to Deaf camp-outs to raffles. People interested in helping with flyers and tickets are always welcome.

    You can find out about functions in your community by checking the community pages in the phone book, looking on the Internet, or calling the local residential school for the Deaf if your community has one.

  • Make Deaf friends. Having Deaf friends is really no different than having hearing friends. Many Deaf people enjoy sports, going shopping, and surfing the Internet. A Deaf friend can help you a lot with ASL. Just think carefully about your friendship. Deaf people are sharing a language and culture with you that they hold in high regard — please try to do the same.

  • Attend Deaf movies and plays. Many local theaters have weekly plays, which include one night of an interpreted performance. In metropolitan areas, Deaf theaters have plays with all Deaf actors. Some larger cities also have movie nights featuring captioned subtitles. Many Deaf people attend these functions, so they’re great avenues for meeting different people and learning about Deaf culture.

  • Work at camps for the Deaf. Working at a Deaf camp gives the novice signer a relaxed atmosphere in which to work with Deaf children. Deaf camps are filled with games, hiking, and other good times. You have ample opportunity to interact with Deaf people from different areas and to encounter a variety of signing jargon and styles.

  • Attend silent weekends. Silent weekends aren’t as lengthy as Deaf camps. Beginning signers who can’t miss time from work may find these weekends a perfect opportunity to mix with the Deaf community.

    These weekends vary as to how they’re run. Some furnish cabins that allow people to talk in the evenings, usually after 4 or 6 p.m., while others allow no talking at all. In fact, you may even be fined — 10 or 25 cents per infraction — if you’re caught talking at all. Entertainment is on hand, and an array of ASL teachers and interpreters are there to ensure that the weekend is filled with accurate signing.

    You can obtain information about these silent weekends by going to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) Web site. Click on your area’s link for information.

  • Go to Deaf workshops and conferences. Many Deaf organizations exist, and one in particular is the National Association of the Deaf (NAD). Workshops and conferences offer a myriad of subjects — something to interest everyone. One popular subject is Sign itself. Many educators and veteran interpreters regularly present poetry in Sign or give in-depth analyses of particular properties of Sign.

  • Watch Sign language videos. Many companies specialize in Sign language materials, and they'll be happy to send you their catalogs. Get together with a Deaf friend, grab a catalog, and let your friend help you decide which videos would be good to use based on your particular level of ability. The best way to find sources of these types of videos is to surf the Net. Your local library is also a good source for videos — you can often borrow them free of charge.

    Although books are a big help, videos not only demonstrate three-dimensional signing, but also can be rewound and viewed at a slower-than-normal speed.

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