What I Learned by Flunking Out of ASL

This past winter I decided to take a class in American Sign Language, ASL. It was a six-week course with a two-and-a-half hour class once a week. It was totally immersive – no spoken language allowed, even with the administrators.signlanguageabc

I took this challenge on for a couple of different reasons. The first was that I hoped to be able to exchange polite basics in ASL when I meet people who are Deaf. The second was to exercise my brain. Finally, ASL is a beautiful expressive language and in my work with the hard of hearing I often encounter someone signing. I wanted to see if I could pick up at least the most common signs.

We did learn some basics, but the class was geared more as an introductory level for people who intended to go on master ASL. In the first few classes we learned terms for discussing extended family. For instance, Is your cousin older than your brother? Who is her aunt? Are they divorced or separated? Is your youngest step-sister engaged? Clearly these are useful for conversation, especially as you get to know someone. But I couldn’t imagine myself ever asking about someone’s cousin. I found it hard enough to master father, mother, sister, brother, grandmother and grandfather to go on with other relatives.

Much of the class centered on student life. “May I borrow your slide rule?” In ASL (I think) this is “Slide rule me give?” Object subject verb, in that order. Online sources say you can use an alternate Subject Verb Object structure, which is more like spoken English, but not in my class. “Can you teach me English?” “English me teach? Help me need.” The tutor responds, “Yes. Me you pay?” (Don’t forget I flunked. This may not be correct.)

We did learn how to say Hello and Goodbye (just as you would in English, a hand signal of greeting and a little wave goodbye). “Thank you.” And “You’re Welcome” (which is “Thank You” back). “Deaf”, “hard of hearing,” and “hearing”. That was very useful. But “halter top”?

We learned how to finger spell. But we didn’t learn the alphabet from A to Z, we learned what seemed like random combinations of letters on different weeks.

The first few classes were fun. We played guessing games to increase eye-brain speed. About a third of each class was devoted to Deaf history (I did well in that) and Deaf Etiquette – some of which I was unable to comprehend. Repeatedly, in class and in quizzes, we were told that if two Deaf people are signing and you want to get past them, it is rude to walk around them. The proper etiquette is to walk right between them, without any acknowledgment that you are between them. I found this baffling but it was beyond my ability to ask about the logic of it.

My brain did feel more flexible, but only up to a certain point. We started out with six in the class, three women around my age, 50’s and 60’s, and three in their 20’s or early 30’s. One 60-year old dropped out after 20 minutes. The second made it through three classes. I made it to the end, my brain feeling ever more boggled.  Watching the teacher and then trying to repeat the signs is tricky. It’s a mirror image. It reminded me of what they always say about Ginger Rogers: She did everything Astaire did, but backwards, and in heels. Also, my aging fingers are just not as flexible as those of my 20-30-year-old fellow students.

When I spoke to the teacher about whether I should repeat Level 1 or go on to Level 2, he said I needed a private tutor. Whoa. I didn’t think I was that bad! I’ve never flunked anything. It’s humiliating!

My confidence immediately plummeted and I forgot everything I’d learned. But I didn’t want to give up so I started studying on line.

Here are some suggestions.

Print out a fingerspelling alphabet poster. Here are several to choose from. They are all free. Hang it above your desk. Teach yourself the alphabet. Then use  William Vicar’s Finger Spelling Practice. This is an increasingly difficult test-yourself site that is almost addictive. The words get longer, the fingerspelling gets faster. You can see your progress.

For those courtesy basics, go to Basic ASL: 100 Signs. The “student” in this video is a young woman who is competent but also charmingly modest and sometimes indecisive, and sometimes flat wrong. She makes you feel better about yourself. Want to learn how to count? Here’s a link.

There are many levels in this series, of increasing difficulty. You do it in your own time. I try to spend 20 minutes a day on practice, and I’m improving! My brain is also becoming more flexible. One unintended benefit is that my hand-eye coordination is improved, and it’s made a noticeable difference in my tennis game.

So I flunked ASL, but I learned a lot.

This column appeared in a slightly different form on AARP Health Essentials on May 4 2017









38 thoughts on “What I Learned by Flunking Out of ASL

  1. Enjoyed reading about your ASL educational experience. I also did one semester of ASL, with my partner who has since passed away. The problem is maintaining memory of ASL if you don’t use it. Use it or lose it. How do you plan to maintain your knowledge of it? You’ll keep a special long term relationship with the computer? (smile)


  2. Thank you for writing this: I LOVE Bill Vicars’s stuff! He is so funny and kind in his writing and signing!
    Confession: I would crib from lifeprint during my ASL class.

    BTW, on my end, I cycled through level 1 twice and still am weak on the syntax and most vocab. Looks like a tutor for me as well. I like to laugh at myself – this is such a hearie problem.


      • The term, “hearie” is actually a derogatory word. You really don’t want to use it or call yourself one. It’s best to refer to yourself as “hearing”. As in, ‘That’s a hearing problem.” Same for people who are Deaf. They do not like the phrase, “hearing impaired”. They are deaf and prefer to be called Deaf (notice the capital D?) When talking about the Deaf culture you refer to the culture or a member of the culture with a capital letter. When talking about hearing status, you use a lower case “d” for deaf. Now, don’t misunderstand. Not every person who is deaf, is a member of the Deaf culture. (see how confusing all of this can be!) 🙂
        It sounds like you either were in the wrong ASL class (focus should have been on general knowledge of ASL and not the training of interpreters!) or you didn’t have a teacher with strong experiences in teaching beginning students. A community-based class shouldn’t be that strict and should be informative and fun to participate. Should not make you feel inferior or inadequate. Only reason to fail is not to show up for class. Don’t get down on yourself. It took you almost 1.5-2 years before you spoke your first English sentence when you were a toddler. You can’t expect to be able to be fluent in ASL in 6 weeks 🙂 Studies show, 5-7 years of DAILY USE (All day) Then, you could consider yourself fluent in ASL. Most hearing don’t understand that. They think ASL is just pantomiming, ugh. ha


      • I think you misunderstood me. I am a person with severe hearing loss so I’d never call myself a hearie. I don’t remember now who used that term originally. I do know some people with hearing loss call themselves deafies — I wouldn’t, but they can if they want.
        I certainly didn’t expect to become fluent in Level 1 of ASL. I was ready to go on for many semesters. So it was a rude shock to be told I was doing so badly. I do need a different approach.

        Liked by 1 person

    • That’s true of all languages really, and of math — and of your brain in general. That’s one reason treating hearing loss is important — use those speech pathways in the brain or you lose them, and it’ll be much harder to relearn how to hear speech later when you finally get a hearing aid.


  3. I really enjoyed reading this. I can relate.

    In the 1980s, my children, my late husband and I all took a couple of classes. Not surprising my teenaged daughters mastered it more quickly. I also had the same problem with flexibility in my hands. The teacher would pinch his throat if I used oral language. It isn’t as easy as it looks. It’s truly a solid language with many regional dialects and there are no universal signs.

    Yet after three ASL classes in the past, I do want to perfect my skills. It can’t hurt, right?


  4. I’ve been wanting to learn ASL for a very long time, but know that I need to do it with others with whom I converse, so I can practice. The online stuff you mention might be a very good start for me. Thank you, Katherine.


  5. I think you did great for only a six week course, 2.5 hours a week in a foreign language. Folks take years in high school (or college) trying to master the basics, be it Spanish, French, German, Latin or ASL. The grammar and syntax is definitely different then our native English language.

    I prefer classes that combine the total communication rather then the style of total silent ASL immersion approach for learning ASL.

    ASL is highly visual-spatial and especially a class with no spoken language that does not allow for multiple learning styles. In addition, some folks
    have trouble with the visual-spatial processing of flipped imagines in ASL.

    I took 2 years of ASL (way back when…) and found the best way for me to learn was outside the classes in Deaf clubs, signing supper/silent supper clubs and so forth. I found it useful when they would correct me orally, or just write it down what it means if they were non verbal.

    Having said this, fast forward over the years, I forgot most of the ASL I learned, although i know a few basic signs. It was just a natural process for me (and practical as well) to speak English when my spouse, children, extended family members, friends, teacher, boss, co-workers, cashier, bank teller, neighbors, the repair guy,painter, parent-teacher meetings, the person giving a lecture speak English not ASL.



    • HI Donna,
      If you are in a Total Communication class, then you are not using ASL. You can not verbally speak while signing ASL due to several factors (I’ll address just 2): 1. it’s not the same sentence structure (you’d sound silly to another hearing person, example: STORE, YOU GO?). 2. You need your mouth to create the morphemes that are used in ASL. Sometimes you puff your cheeks with a sign. Other times you make a “pah” sound…. the list of morphemes goes on and on, but each one is used in the language so you can’t speak English and sign ASL plus use morphemes accurately 🙂
      Total Communication is not a language. It’s a method of visually representing English. It follows English word order. It borrows SOME signs from ASL but others have been developed to make it easier for people learning English. Example: D- handshape for Desk, T-handshape for Table ASL has one movement to represent those concepts and contextual clues will help you know specifically which one the person using ASL is referring to in the sentence. I hope this clarifies the difference for you and many others who often confuse what Total Communication is vs what ASL is all about 🙂 ASL is a language, T.C. is a method. 🙂


      • I took two years of ASL, and not a Total Communication class. However, i didn’t mean total in the sense of
        speaking and signing at the same time kind of classes. I was implying that I like classes that use both oral and written English and ASL but not necessary signing and speaking at the same time. Same with other foreign languages.

        I was just saying that I prefer other teaching and learning methods rather then mandatory shutting the voice off in ASL classes. Some people like English reinforcement or written reinforcement, or both when studying a foreign language.

        I realize many teachers of foreign languages do a total immersion style. I think it depends on your learning style too.

        My daughter dislikes a particular language software program (Mandarin Chinese) for similar reasons -all immersion, just pictures and the Chinese word, no English definitions etc. But then she took a class that included the English and loved it MUCH better. The Chinese teacher in that class spoke both English and Mandarin Chinese and it allowed her to process it so much more. The teacher went back and forth from English to Mandarin. That was a good fit for her.

        I took ASL classes decades ago and like some were saying, its use or lose. As you were saying it takes 5 years of daily practice for fluency. While hanging out with Deaf culture is a great way to learn ASL, unless you hang out with Deaf culture regularly, one is likely to lose it.

        Many folks who took foreign languages like French, for example, in high school and didn’t go to the nation of France to practice the French regularly might lose it too. USA is mostly an English speaking country. If you don’t encounter too many French speakers, you might forget it. Same with ASL. You can forget it if you don’t visit Deaf culture/Deaf Nation regularly.

        My grandfather’s first language was French. He forgot it too when he moved because he was always hanging out with English speakers in his new country of USA. It happens.

        For me personally, I don’t like the immersion style classes in which you are not allowed to speak English at all. I like bilingual teachers going back and forth whether it is French, ASL, Spanish, Chinese/Mandarin etc. That’s my preference in learning.


  6. I love your blogs -your humor makes me feel good and your understanding really helps . Sat next to a friend of mine at church sun who I knew had had eyes problems . When I asked her how it was going she said “After 3 surgeries I will never see much again” she asked about my hearing and I told her “After. 3 years they have come told me I will never hear much again” she answered ” I’d rather have your problem – you can still function – I have lost all my independence ” So – guess it is what it is”


    • Helen Keller, as I’m sure you know, said deafness was worse than blindness… Deafness cuts you off from the company of others. But I think your friend is right. Blindness does cost us our independence. Deafness can be worked around with devices, note writing, sign language, etc. Thanks for your nice words about the post.


  7. You get A+++ for trying, Katherine! Maybe you should tell the major tennis coaches about this new
    eye hand coordination training scheme.


    • Thanks! But my teacher disagreed. He said I wasn’t trying hard enough. I’m not sure how he was so sure about that — I felt like I was devoting quite a lot of time and effort to practice.


  8. Hello Katherine. Great post 🙂 I failed my BSL too!! I started learning it many years ago at a college after work. This was about 10 years ago – way before my hearing loss last year. I had always had an interest in sign language. Anyway, i loved the classes, and I met some great people (and even met a (now) ex-boyfriend !) I loved using sign language with my boyfriend who lost what was left of his hearing, whilst we were together. We communicated very well with our basic level of sign language 🙂 However, I took the tests for BSL Level 1, and failed quite spectacularly!! Unfortunately, I got my results just as I was leaving England to live overseas, and so never found out why I failed, or ever tried to do the test again….Maybe, i will return to classes again one day…I would like to understand a little part of the deaf sign language world 🙂
    Well done Katherine for going to the classes and especially for all the self-studying you are doing. Take care, and good luck! Carly


  9. Well, Katherine, that was such an evocative post. I do not have ASL and it’s likely that I won’t deal wth it at this late stage of my life. When I was in HS, about 1400 years ago, we took a stab at finger spelling in a social studies class as I recall. There was not a single ASL user in our school.

    I do think that if I had an ASL “speaking” friend or neighbor that would be just the thing to motivate me into – if not learning ASL, to take the plunge, in the shallow end of the pool, of course. A second language requires use for any level of fluency to be maintained.

    I do appreciate your commitment to the hearing loss cause.


  10. Your ASL teacher said you were not trying hard enough? Wow, that’s BAD teaching. If you learned a ton in six weeks, its awesome.

    If you really want to learn more, do yourself a favor and ditch the classes and just hang out at the local Deaf club. Most are delighted
    to teach you and it won’t cost you a dime. Plus you can be more flexible with your time
    since classes are restricted to a certain time frame and you’ll make some friends too while you’re at it.

    I took it for two years and got a ton of exposure but the novelty wore out for me especially when i preferred getting interpreting of the same language with CART -exactly as it is being said, rather then meaning for meaning translation that ASL is (like any other foreign language). It was ‘effective communication’ for me.

    I thought to myself, why not get interpreting word for word if you are already fluent in English? Why have meaning for meaning translation instead if the speaker is already speaking in English and you already know English? If you know English and the speaker is speaking in English, why have it translated to another language?

    Since I’m fluent in English and verbal, using CART/captioning was a better fit for me. I use the CART for receptive purposes and then respond verbally and i didn’t have to shut my voice off either (which is difficult for me to do -LOL). There are plenty of Deaf/deaf/HOH people to meet who speak English any more then ASL if you want common interest community.

    Having said that, it is nice to know enough ASL to communicate with the non verbal ASL Deaf members. I personally found them all pretty patient if you are not fluent in ASL. They are proud of their language and happy to teach from my experiences. They will slow down usually.

    These days too, most ASL/Deaf signers, including natives are bilingual. If you don’t know enough ASL, they’ll fill you in with the English. That’s my experience any way. Bilingualism is the new face of Deaf community these days. I am surprised they are still teaching ASL classes with no spoken language allowed which i dislike because it doesn’t consider multiple learning styles in learning languages. You failed not because of you, but bad teaching IMO.



  11. Tutors in sign language are not a put-down. When I went through the ASL Studies Program at Union County College in NJ, we could attend tutoring sessions in the UCC library after Tuesday and Thursday classes. Most of my class attended these sessions and we improved more quickly than we might have. We were also “fined” 25 cents each time we were caught using our voices anywhere on campus. At the end of the year,we had a great ASL party with the fine money.


    • I think this was different. He was proposing a tutor instead of the class. I liked being with the group. I don’t think I slowed them down. The group class was fun and I learned from the others as well as from the teacher.


  12. Katherine, you made me feel better. I could not find a class where I live, so I took private
    lessons with a deaf college professor this past September. I devoted 45 minutes a day working with the
    text and the CD.

    I keep wondering if there is not a better way to teach ASL. Apparently, fingerspelling is one
    of the hardest parts to follow in a signer. I found “performing” ASL as the
    speaker is easier than reading the signs from a person. I never got good as deciphering fingerspelling or even my teacher’s signs.. So, I gave up and am doing
    another course for my brain. And, my granddaughter is so much better than I am after the same
    number of lessons. Adelaide


    • I think people who sign fluently also use a kind of shorthand for familiar terms and even for fingerspelling. So if you’re watching a native ASL speaker and you’re new to sign, it’s like listening to an English-speaking fast talking businessman when you’re taking English as a second language. One problem for me was not to be able to supplement the “spoken” language with reading. If I were studying French, I’d practice listening and speaking of course, but I’d also read books and articles to supplement was I was learning orally.


  13. The fact that you were a former editor, and a writer already suggests you have a strong preference for reading/writing as a dominant learning style.


  14. Probably you might be a dominant Verbal Linguistic learner? Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening?

    You hinted at it with speaking and listening when learning French, but also reading and writing in French to reinforce your learning of the French language.

    Plus you are a writer by profession and a former editor. Big clue there too.

    I still think they should teach ASL using multiple learning styles and not make it mandatory to shut voice off during class. Not everyone works that way and throwing in a little verbal/written reinforcement might be helpful for some compared to exclusive visual spatial learning (whom the native ASL excel at and often are the teachers of ASL classes).

    A strong visual spatial teacher will not know what to do with a strong Verbal Linguistic learner and student. Instead they teach the class the way they themselves learn, not how a particular student learns . Verbal learners like to learn in groups too.

    I greatly benefited combining verbal/written English and ASL in understanding and processing ASL when hanging out at Deaf clubs way back when… Hang out with some bilinguals and you’ll learn faster for a verbal linguistic learner and get to be with people too.


    • I think you hit the nail right on the head. We had supplementary materials for practice at home but they were also all visual. I would have loved a good old quiz format. The quiz asks, “What’s the sign for school?” Then you make the sign, then the video shows you the answer. Same for the basics like who, what, where, when? Just rote practice.


  15. I teach ASL and Interpreting in college. You got the Deaf Culture piece a little wrong. If two.Deaf people are signing and you can go around-do. If you can’t it’s more polite to slip between the two (breaking their eye contact for only a moment) than to call attention to yourself and break up their conversation to tell them that you need to pass through. This breaks the eye contact and the conversation for longer and makes it about you-rather than respecting their private conversation and slipping through quickly.
    Also, there is definitely a sign for Hearing as there is also a sign for Deaf. Maybe if you continue you will enjoy it more and more. It’s a beautiful language.


    • Thank you so much for that explanation!
      I was very busy finishing a book and then getting through the holidays, but my project for 2019 is to go back to learning ASL, at least the basics. Thanks for writing.


  16. I’ve been signing most of my life. I think your teacher probably sucked. My best friends growing up were deaf (I was hearing) and though some things get changed, deaf people will understand hearing-type speaking! I am now deaf in my left ear and hearing impaired on the right (life IS funny) and use sign. The most frustrating thing is how many people seem terrified when I say thank you in sign. Please don’t give up! May I suggest to find a church with a deaf work? They would LOVE to help with your skills! ❤️


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