How to Learn Sign Language When You Can’t Sign to Save Your Life

Help! I can't understand what you're signing to me.

Help! I can’t understand what you’re signing to me.

Lipreading Mom has an embarrassing confession to make. Whenever someone signs, I stare in confusion, trying to draw meaning from their moving fingers. I’m not proud to admit that while I can learn and regularly use sign language at home and church, I don’t always understand what another person is signing to me. I may have sign language dyslexia. That’s not an official diagnosis, nor have I ever heard of someone else having this kind of dyslexia. But it applies in my case.

Something Lipreading Mom has committed to doing is to initiate a sign language conversation with people I don’t know. These are people I observe signing and/or wearing hearing aids in public. Granted, I have preschool-level sign language compression skills, but can get by with signing my introduction…

ME: Hi, are you Deaf?

STRANGER: (nods)

ME: (grinning, ear to ear) I’m hard of hearing… My name is (fingerspelled) S-H-A-N-N-A…

(awkward pause as I try to remember my signs)

STRANGER: (signs something to me)

ME: (eyes squinted at first, then pretending to understand) Yes. Okay…

(I pause. Stranger signs. I squint, then pretend to understand again.)

ME: (quickly) Okay. Nice to meet you.

Do You Have Sign Language Dyslexia?

If you can relate to my embarrassing confession, I’ve found the following things help.

  • When signing with someone, have that person stand beside you, not in front of you. Otherwise, that person’s signing movements will be like a “mirror reflection” to your eyes—backwards.
  • Download one or more American Sign Language (ASL) apps, and practice regularly. lists several apps. One that my daughter and I use is MarleeSigns, an iTunes signing program by actress Marlee Matlin, who is deaf.
  • Visit events where sign language is common. Deaf Coffee Chats are an excellent way to learn sign language and are held all over the United States. Click here to see if a chat group meets in your area. Last weekend, my hubby and I attended a launch party at sComm, manufacturer of the UbiDuo and UbiDuo2 communication devices for the Deaf. While a voice interpreter and captioning followed along, sComm Founder Jason Curry communicated from the stage in ASL. This was an excellent chance for me to go back and forth between reading the captions and watching Jason’s hands move. I was able to put his ideas and thoughts together, while the captioning filled in the gaps.
  • Learn songs in sign language. I’ve found that music makes learning to sign easier, because the hand movements are more dramatic and often slower. Where I attend church, one of the ladies signs the worship music. One day, I asked her how she learned to sign the words so beautifully. Her answer: Watching YouTube videos. She finds out, in advance, what the the worship songs will be each Sunday, then she Googles the name of the song and “sign language video” on YouTube. Click here to search for sign language videos to your popular songs.

Join Me for a Discussion About Sign Language February 22

Each month, I co-host an online DeafChat. On February 22, the topic will be “Sign Language: How to Do It, Then Teach Others.” Click here for more details.

Do You Have a Sign Language Tip?

Share your suggestions, comments, or questions below. If you also suffer from what I call sign language dyslexia, let me know so I don’t feel so embarrassed. (Wink!)


35 thoughts on “How to Learn Sign Language When You Can’t Sign to Save Your Life

  1. Shanna, what I don’t understand is this – I can sign easily with late-deafened people, but when I attempt to sign with native ASL signers, I’m stuck!! I feel like I don’t know any signs when I’m around them. Guess I have sign language dyslexia, too.

    • Cynthia (@4ears, 4eyes) – I agree with you and have found it easier to sign with someone who is late-deafened than someone who has signed his/her whole life. Thanks for the helpful insight.

    • Late-deafened folks are not native American Sign Language signers, therefore they probably sign more SEE — signed English, which seems to be what is easiest for your receptive skills. Signed English is a signing system, ASL is a natural language; they are two completely different things. Signed english is simply an attempt at mapping auditory English visually (it is not a language, it is a communication system), while ASL has its own grammar structure and syntax just like any other language. Naturally, if you are not signing ASL proficiently or interacting frequently with people who use ASL naturally — it will be harder for you to understand native users as you are not actually using ASL on a regular basis.

      • Wyatte – I think that’s a good point about SEE, as that is how I feel most comfortable signing. Since English is my first language, that makes sense.

  2. Thank you SO MUCH for this post. I was starting to think I had a learning disability. Another problem I have is, when people spell words out to me in ASL, even though I have gotten fairly adept at understanding each individual letter, I still am not good at taking that and stringing the letters into a whole word in my head. I always have to ask them to slowly repeat while I mentally try to form the word. It gets especially embarrassing when people with perfectly good hearing who don’t sign but just know a few words and the alphabet are able to communicate with deaf people better than I am. I had to have my hearing friend who only knows a little ASL interpret for me when I went to a meeting with a deaf advocate. Made me feel like there is no where I can fit in.

    • Jamie – I know how you feel about understanding finger spelling. My daughter finger spells quickly to me, and I don’t even know the letters she’s spelled. I mean, I know HOW to finger spell..but reading someone else’s finger spelling is another thing entirely. Ugh! We are not alone.

  3. Great blog post. I am hard of hearing and am constantly asked if I know sign language. I am embarrased to say I don’t. Thank you for the sign language resources. I would love to learn, but am not up for going to college to do so. I will try to check out your Deaf Chat on the topic.

    • @insanityofmotherhood – That’s awesome that learning sign language is one of your goals. When you decide to start that journey, I hope you write about it on your excellent blog.

  4. In regard to the overall point of the article, signing receptivity often lags behind signing proficiency. People generally learn how to express themselves in signs faster than they learn how to understand other people expressing themselves. This gap in skills goes away with practice and interacting with other signing folks on a regular basis. The best way is just to keep socializing.

  5. Its nice to see I am not alone. I don’t know much sign to have a conversation. But fingerspelling I know and I can do quickly. But if someone fingerspells to me something, its gone straight over my head.

  6. So so glad for this …….I now know that its not just me. I’m, learning ASL Aid just plain difficult. I’m a late deafened adult….took beginning. and level 2 sign language courses back in 2009 when I loss my hearing totally. I did learn the basics …but…a. no one in my family, at my job …no one around me signed…so I had no practices..and b. the cost for continuing to take the courses…I could nit afford. The closest deaf cafe chat us a 30 min. drive from where I live …in the evening hours (because I’m deaf, I take precaution in nite driving, and never drive alone more than 20 min away from my family). So dang, ya know. ! What I plan to do is be in the lookout for ASL classes held in my community …area high school’s adult evening school, etc….(there one at Temple Univ. 10 wks fir $30 bucks, one at a local hs 8wks for $120 bucks, etc)….so I can keep going and maybe learn n pick thus up better….we’ll see

  7. Practice, practice, practice. And then when you’re tired of practicing go practice, practice, practice more – both receptive and expressive. I can understand more than I can express. And each person signs a little differently – I have some terps I can hardly understand and others I understand everything they say.

    Watch youtube videos (although SEE is common there) and particularly Keith Wann. Then watch more youtube videos. In fact, memorize them so you can do them and then when you see someone else do it you’ll go – oh, yeah! Do this every day (watch at least 1-2 vids). Look of VLOGS and watch ones with cc’s if you can.

    Attend every ASL Meetup and Deaf coffee or social event you can get to. Tell Deaf people you’re learning and most of them have incredible patience (at least to your face). I ran into some deafies at a coffee shop and have run into them a few other times since then.

    Get skype and sign with others. Get a VP – I can download the Purple App on my iPhone and iMac. Then find people who want to sign and work at it. The apps I prefer are Signing Savvy and ASL Dictionary 5,200 signs. You can also get good material from Everyday and if you are on their FB site you can watch free videos. In fact, for a couple hundred bucks (the cost of a class IRL) you can buy the entire Everyday ASL DVD library.

    • Marsha – Thanks for the great suggestions. That’s interesting how you handle receptive sign language better than expressive sign language. I’m curious if other readers can relate.

      • A baby learns language sounds in the womb (assuming they can hear it) and a baby learns to understand language before they can speak it (again assuming they are oral). A baby can learn ASL before they can move their fingers to speak it back, but they can speak ASL before they can voice English. If you spend a lot of time watching ASL you will fall into the category of being a better receptive signer than an expressive one. Most ASL students struggle learning how to move their fingers and face rather than spending time learning how to read others. One of the reasons hearing people tend to be deaf from the neck on down is that they don’t spend sufficient time really watching the total body expression of ASL. I had two teachers tell me what I needed to do was go watch people sign. If you simply watch native signers you will soon realize that if you let go you will understand them through their expressions and body movements. Try it – you might find you like it. 🙂

  8. Oh man can I ever relate. I am hearing and live with a late-deafened man who signs all day at work and basically refuses to sign when he gets home. So, I have learned the basics to communicate with him, but I don’t get any ‘reading’ practice. Then he’ll take me to a deaf function, and I want to head for the corner except for the fact that all the ASLers and late-deafies so graciously grab me and patiently work to ‘teach’ me as we have very s-l-o-w conversations.

  9. I have been watching this post unfold. If I may add my two cents I must say Shanna you, (and others), are being way too hard on yourself. You first language is English and you are also an accomplished writer. ASL is another language that is visual, conceptual, and has many other facets that make it harder to learn than any written language.
    I am sure you have improved much more than you realize. It’s a learning curve but there are so many aspects too numerous to list involved that most people do not realize how much they are actually learning when they start.
    Anotherboomerblog has been SPOT-ON with her advice. Kudos to her!
    As far as finger spelling receptive that is something everyone struggles with on some level for many reasons. As your skills improve you will stop seeing individual letters when someone fingerspells and you will see the word. Once that happens the first time you will know your hard work has paid off and you will have reached a new level and it will start happening more often.
    Also understand how easy you will be able to read finger spelling at first depends on if you are right or left brained. If memory serves the more left brained you are the easier and the more right brained the harder. And each person can be anywhere in between.
    Also remember ASL, Signed English, SEE (which is not the same thing), pigeon, regional signs, dialects, and the list goes on are also involved. And everyone has good and bad days.
    I am no expert or know it all but I relate. I am a certified interpreter of 18 years and any interpreter that’s first language is English and says they don’t struggle periodically is not being forthcoming.
    When I started down this road about 25 years ago I had never met a Deaf person. But my wife lost her hearing and we learned together. I lost her to cancer 16 years ago and here I am still in the same field. Ironic eh? To add more irony I have lost much of my hearing now and have become a statistic. I am really in no man’s land because with my aids I can still function for now but don’t fit in anywhere. I put up with the, “oh never mind”, from hearing and can’t her on the phone to the flip side from Deaf and severely hard of hearing that still consider me too hearing. Oh well. But I say all this to encourage you. You are making a huge difference out there. More than you realize. Keep on trudging along and realize you are doing better than you think. Your sign for the day is “CAN” 🙂

    • @terpstube – Your words mean a great deal to me, as I value your opinion and advice. Thank you for being supportive of those of us trudging through the waters of learning sign language. Your blog and professional interpretation services are a blessing to so many.

      • Thanks Shanna,
        You are making a difference in the community in a very positive way. That’s what it’s all about ultimately. You come up with very creative ideas that impact people where they live.
        And BTW please excuse the grammar and spelling errors in the last post. I broke the first rule of blogging by not proofing before hitting send. Ouch! That must have been painful to read. It was late. HA
        Keep up the good work out there! Looking forward to future posts.

  10. Wow….so, so grateful I am to find your post! All of my classmates have picked up sign language very easily, but I have been struggling for several years now. My progress has been steady, but so, so slow. I’ve known that it had to do with a learning disability (I believe dyslexia is one) but I had no idea what to do that being the case.

    Your suggestion of standing next to the signer made me laugh, because I was thrown out of a dance class once – the teacher refused to face the mirror to teach us the dance steps, so in facing us, I kept going the wrong way and crashing into people. LOL

    I will definitely try this suggestion out. There should be an app for building receptive skills where you can turn the signers around, alter the speed, change the background, dim the lights, etc.!

  11. I gotta say its soo great to see this blog. I am the hearing mom of a late-deafened daughter in her 1st year at Rochester Institute of Tech/ National Institute of Technology for the Deaf, NY. Deafened at 9 yrs. old, her native language is English. She’s learning ASL but for social purposes only. Most of her classes are ‘supported’ with English Signing interpreters. Currently, she’s having a battle with one class where the terp refuses to use English Sign and uses ASL instead. Took the issue to the Deans of the college…thought my days of battle were over getting APPROPRIATE services. My daughter graduated 2nd in high school class of 320 students. Deaf, not dumb. The two modes of Sign, English & ASL are VERY different. I think its sad not to expose more high school students with hearing loss to English.
    At NTID, kids graduate with a mere Associates degree & 5 years to do it because their English skills are behind. At RIT its a BA in 4 years. I wish and pray that every responsible interpreter would teach their student to learn English by the 10th grade. That way, they have the opportunity to earn a BA, MA, PhD.

    • Seeds – It’s not the interpreter’s responsibility to teach the student anything. They are just there to facilitate communication between the student and teacher. It’s the teachers and administrators who bear the responsibility for what the students are taught. If the terp doesn’t want to use PSE or SEE, get another terp.

  12. Hi, I’m a 19 year old college student, and am in the second part of learning asl at my university. I’m having lots of trouble, I was pretty good with just learning basic stuff last year, but now just totally lost. My teacher has to continually help me in front of my class, which is kind of embarrassing but, my performance still just remains really bad. When we practice in class, every one understands him just like that. I’m over there like, what? I only understand bits and pieces of what my teacher is saying. Everyone is so much more advanced than I am. I think some of them had sign language experience before they came to college, which puts them wayyy ahead of me, cause I have no previous experience. I don’t know what to do, other than to keep studying the book, and keep trying.

    • Hi Destinee – Thanks for your comment. As you can tell from reading my blog post, you are not alone. After many years of trying to understand people signing to me, I noticed that watching ASL YouTube videos in slow motion (with captions) helped some with my comprehension. Just an idea!

      • For me as well, slo-mo is the way to go. If you think of your vision as a muscle, you have to exercise it regularly. My teachers all told me not to watch with captions and not to watch anything in slow motion. After five years of struggle and humiliation, I said screw that, and started to do things my way. And that’s when I started to improve.

        I also copy sign videos at various speeds – this really helps expand my grammar, vocab and signing speed. The thing is, if I go a couple days without practicing, my skills tank. Sign language requires discipline!

  13. Stumbled upon this and completely relate. I’m in ASL 6 but feel like I’m at the level of ASL 4, receptively. I have a math learning disability so I don’t know if that would affect it (it seems like it’d be unrelated?) I also struggled with Spanish in high school, so languages must just be that way for me. I like ASL a lot, but it is frustrating to get a B in the class when I’m usually an A student…it’s good to know I’m not alone! It sometimes feels that ways since most of my classmates have picked it up super easily.

    • Thank you for your comment, Lily. I find that learning a new language as an adult can be challenging. Maybe if we had learned ASL as children, it might have been easier to acquire the language.

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