Challenges of Learning Sign Language

Difficulty Depends on the Type You Are Trying to Learn

American sign language
Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images

There is a perception that learning sign language is hard, and, in a way, it is both true and not true. It depends largely on what type of sign language you are trying to learn.

Challenges in Conversational Sign Language

If you are trying to learn sign language for conversational purposes, it's actually not all that difficult. As with any language, it simply takes time but becomes more intuitive as you engage with others on a one-on-one basis.

As time passes and you grasp the expansive range of expression in sign language, your fluency improves. It's as simple as that.

With that being said, learning any language after a certain age is far more challenging than doing so when you are young. Moreover, with sign language, you generally don't have the ability to immerse yourself in the language outside of the classroom. In many cases, your interaction may be limited to a single family member who is deaf. If that person is a child, your goals and needs would be far different than if you were communicating with an adult. That can limit how fast or slowly you gain fluency in the language.

Another challenge of learning sign language is that the average speed of communications in a social setting can often be overwhelming, particularly if you are in a group. It takes communications to a completely different level and demands that you master eye gazing to better navigate the give-and-take of communal interactions.

On the flip side, imagine if you were translating for a deaf person in a group of hearing people. Which parts of a conversation do you sign to convey what is truly going on? It can be challenging even to those skilled in one-on-one or communications.

To begin the process of learning conversational sign language, contact your state affiliate of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) for referrals to local colleges, universities, schools, and community-based associations offering adult sign language classes.

As far as how "hard" it is, that varies from person to person. In the end, it is like any other language. Take it one step at a time, don't be discouraged, and you'll likely pick it up faster than you imagine.

Challenges in a Professional Setting

If you are trying to learn sign language for professional or technical purposes, it can be tough. One of the challenges people face when learning American sign language (ASL) is that it requires them to stop "thinking straight English" and rely on abstraction and other skills to communicate both dynamically and accurately.

While a person can largely get by in a conversational setting with basic fingerspelling and phonetic skills (hand and symbol cues which represent the sound of spoken English), a professional interpreter needs greater specificity as well as the ability to translate different languages and professional lexicons in real-time.

Moreover, there is no one universal sign language for interpreters. Each country has its own sign language with regional dialects and references that are no less complex than those used in spoken language.

The main challenge to becoming a professional interpreter is not such much difficulty but education. To do so typically requires a minimum bachelor's degree in ASL interpretation with an optional certification by a governing body such as the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID).

Those wanting to work as an interpreter in the engineering, medical, legal, scientific, technical, or international political field will require an advanced degree with additional fluency in the prescribed area of practice.

Some of the colleges offering ASL degrees in the U.S. include:

  • Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C. (bachelor and masters)
  • Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts (bachelor)
  • Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina (bachelor)
  • Rochester University of Technology, Rochester, New York (bachelor)
  • Western Oregon University, Monmouth, Oregon (bachelor and masters)
  • Bethel College, Mishawaka, Indiana (bachelor)
  • St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minnesota (bachelor)
  • Purdue University, Indianapolis, Indiana (bachelor)