This node is addressed primarily at hearing people who wish to learn sign language. It is a very different process if you were born deaf1 or have lost hearing later in life. I can however write about hearing people learning sign language because I myself have spent the last few years learning it. Although I have learnt and am still learning New Zealand sign language, this node is relevant to any Deaf culture from any country.

Why Learn?

This is something that is different for each person, for me it was a combination of things from wanting to learn another language to a general desire to learn about the Deaf community. However for you it could be a totally different reason. Below are some of the reasons people learn sign language.

  • To learn another language.
  • To learn to communicate, or further communicate with a Deaf relative, friend or coworker.
  • To be able to communicate when using your voice or hearing is not possible. Scuba diving is where I have found this handy.
  • To help you understand and learn about the Deaf culture.
  • To further your career prospects. A lot of people who learn sign language use it at their work place.

And there are many more. If you feel I have left out an important one, /msg me and I will be happy to add it in.

Where to begin?

One of the things that stops a lot of people is not knowing where they can learn it, or finding the time to learn it. This is a lot easier than you first might expect. Most cities have schools that offer community education centres or offer night school classes, these places often offer sign language courses. Otherwise you can contact your local Deaf education centre and enquire as to whether they offer classes or can point you in the right direction. Most classes will run once a week, and most of the time they will be offered at night, so you can work it into your schedule.

In New Zealand, you could contact the Kelston Deaf Education Centre in Auckland. In the UK, I have heard the Dorothy Miles Cultural Centre is another such place that will be able to help. For other countries, try your local phone book.


One of the most important aspects of learning sign language is to have a tutor or teacher that is deaf, it is very difficult to learn from someone who can hear and speak. Having a deaf tutor may seem counter-intuitive at first, since how will they be able to talk to you? However you will find immediately that even without speech, communication is possible, that is what sign language is about! A deaf tutor will force you to use sign language in class, there is very little other way of explaining yourself or asking a question if your tutor is deaf. (Most people learn the sign for toilet by the end of the first class :))

Extracurricular activities

As is the case with any language, the best way to learn it is to go out and practice it. This can range from simply meeting with some of your classmates in the weekend for coffee and only using sign language. I do recommend going to at least the occasional Deaf club when you have a basic grasp of the language. These clubs are really a great way to practice your sign, however ensure that the local club does welcome sign language students.

Another activity that is offered at least in New Zealand and I am sure a lot of other places in the world is deaf camps. These are usually one weekend camps where for the entire weekend you never say a single word. At this time I have not had the chance to experience one, however everything I have heard about them put attending one as one of the things that are really great for improving your vocab and sign recognition.

Here I will make mention of a part of the Deaf culture that surprises a number of people when they first realize it. The Deaf are *very* forward and unsubtle. The language does not have much room for subtly, and even though you are told this in class, you really haven't experienced it until you've seen Deaf stories. There are very few topics that are taboo in conversation, certainly not any topics most Western cultures are use it. Some people can get offended by this when first learning sign language, but just remember, this is a different culture, just like if you were visiting another country.

Books and reference material

You will most likely be offered a few small books and guides when first learning sign language. One of these will probably be a small book containing some signs you will learn. These books will most likely be sufficient to learn sign language. However I do recommend purchasing a sign language dictionary after awhile, to enable you to learn new signs without having to ask your tutor. I also recommend purchasing a book or two about the local Deaf culture (see People of the eye for a great book about the New Zealand Deaf culture).

How long will it take?

Until what? Until you can sign the alphabet? Until you can hold a basic conversation? Until you can hold an everyday conversation? Like with learning any language the answers to these questions vary greatly with your own abilities and the environment. It is also difficult to rank its difficulty compared to other languages, since almost each country has its own sign language. However with New Zealand sign language, which is based off British Sign Language I would put its difficulty at slightly less than an English speaking person learning German as their first foreign tongue. But as I said, it depends on the person, some people are uncomfortable with expressing themselves with physical actions rather than words and those who know more than one language already may have an advantage.

1. In this node I use the deaf convention of using an uppercase 'D' when referring to the Deaf culture and people who identify as being deaf. A lowercase 'd' in deaf is the physical disability of profound hearing loss.

Why Learn Sign Language?

There are several benefits in learning sign language. I'm currently picking up SEE2, which uses borrows signs from ASL but conforms to English in all other aspects.

1) You train your hand-eye coordination.

Communicating with Deaf people forces one to pick up signs and gestures on the fly, especially if you are surrounded by them. It makes one more alert, and no doubt the area of the brain responsible for this will develop further. This prevents one from getting dull-minded prematurely.

2) You train your arm muscles.

One of my teachers attested that signing prevented the flabby arm syndrome, in which arm muscles lose their tension and become flaccid and lifeless.

It must be pointed out that one cannot expect to sign the whole day long; even the Deaf get tired arms, and this is perfectly normal. Do allow your arms and fingers some time to get accustomed to signing.

3) It improves your language skills.

This is true for myself when I learn SEE2, even though I already know English well. I can really gush over the perfect-ness of a sign language that distinguishes between "your" and "you're"; "than" and "then"; "there", "they're" and "their". All these words have different signs, but they sound alike in English. Many English-speaking hearing people have difficulty getting these words down on paper correctly in the appropriate context, but the Deaf have no problem.

Naturally, language skills would also be honed when one picks up a language which has a different syntax than one's own mother tongue. It facilitates one in picking up other languages. It's similar to how learning Japanese is easier after learning Chinese. Learning to translate between sign and speech is always great fun, and as pointed out previously, will lead to a more active mind.

4) It improves your body language skills.

Basically, when you sign, your body language has to conform to what you're signing. One cannot nod one's head while signing "no": this leads to confusion. When signing about being happy, one's countenance should show it. As SEE2 seldom includes question marks or exclamation marks, this had to be incorporated into the way I expressed myself, such as frowning when asking a question, or looking extremely surprised. Regardless of whether question marks, etc. are used, Deaf people often use body language to convey what they feel or think. This will be useful even when communicating with other hearing people, who will pick up on body language subconsciously anyway.

5) You get to make more friends.

Naturally the first group of people you get to know much more intimately are the Deaf people you come into contact with. It's interesting to note that they do not consider themselves handicapped; indeed, they see themselves as another group of normal people who just happen to have another language. Much like the Hispanics in America, or Japanese/Koreans in Singapore.

The other group of people would be your classmates in your sign-language class. A great deal of bonding happens when you're laughing over some mis-signed phrase, correcting one another's mistakes and musing over how sign language seems to so difficult to pick up. (It isn't; it just requires more practice.)

The third group would be normal hearies. When I reveal that I know sign language, many hearies perk up and start asking questions. Occasionally I have met people who also know how to sign. This is a great ice-breaker and a good conversational topic.

There are probably more benefits which I'll come across later, since I've only learnt how to sign for two months. But this list is enough to assure me that I've invested my time well.

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