ASL (American Sign Language) is a visual language mostly used by Deaf and hard-of-hearing North Americans. It has its own unique grammar, so it’s not just English in a visual form. After English and Spanish, it’s one of the most commonly-used languages in the United States! How long does it take to learn ASL?
Because ASL is so challenging, it takes longer to learn than spoken languages. It can take 60-90 hours (or at least six courses over 2-3 years) to learn beginner ASL. You can become an intermediate ASL user in two years and an advanced user in another few years.
A brief history of ASL
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, the origins of ASL aren’t clear. It may be a combination of French Sign Language and a few local sign languages, but today, ASL is distinct from other sign languages around the world. It’s even different from British Sign Language. In fact, ASL and BLS only share about 30% of the same signs. Compared to spoken English, ASL has its own rules on word order, word formation, and pronunciation.
There are specific signs for certain words and phrases like “How are you?”, “Thank you,” “I love you,” and “How old are you?” For words without signs (or when a signer doesn’t know the sign), you can use fingerspelling. Facial expressions and body language are as important to ASL as the hand signs. How you move and what facial expressions you make affect the meaning of different signs.
How long it takes to learn beginner ASL – the manual alphabet, numbers, and basic phrases
Various sources say it can take 60-90 hours of practice to become a beginner ASL user. The Language Doctors say after six 3-credit ASL courses over 2-3 years, you’ll be ready for intermediate lessons. The more practice you get, the faster you’ll learn, but unless you have someone you can practice with frequently, it will probably take a while to master the basics. As a beginner, you’ll focus on learning the manual alphabet, numbers, and basic phrases. In ASL, the alphabet is extremely important. It corresponds to English in that there are hand signs for each of the 26 letters. The alphabet is the first thing beginners will begin memorizing and working with. Numbers also have their own sign. Beginners typically only learn numbers 1-10 as larger ones can get more complicated.
You’ll also learn basic phrases since spelling everything out isn’t convenient. The most common phrases and questions are ones used in everyday interactions, like “Hello,” “Goodbye,” “Yes,” “No,” “Thank you,” “How are you?”, “What’s your name?” and so on. In this early stage, you’ll be learning things like hand shape, palm orientation, and how your hand moves to give a sign its meaning. That’s a lot to take in, which is why it can take a while to become an experienced beginner.
How long it takes to learn intermediate ASL – better expression, longer conversations, and speed
Reaching a consistent intermediate level in ASL can take another two years after you’ve become a confident beginner, according to The Language Doctors. You’ll be comfortable in more types of social situations. Phrases and fingerspelling will also come faster than when you were a beginner. Your comprehension will also be significantly improved; you can understand longer sentences with more vocabulary. Intermediate users will also understand more about Deaf culture.
Being able to clarify something confusing or get a conversation back on track is another sign you have intermediate-level skills. You’ll still make mistakes at this level, but if you can explain what you meant or ask enough questions to gain clarity, you’re beyond a beginner. Starting to have more personal, emotional conversations is another sign you’re moving toward an advanced level.
How long it takes to reach advanced ASL – fast signing and fingerspelling, ability to participate in complex conversations, and good interpretation skills
Becoming an advanced ASL user can take a few years, depending on how much practice you’re getting. If you’re getting lots of practice, especially with larger groups of people, you may become an advanced signer faster. Advanced users sign and fingerspell quickly and naturally. They can understand others easily, as well, even during longer, more complex conversations. You can navigate a variety of social scenarios using only ASL; can understand jokes and idioms; and can enjoy media in ASL. You’ll have a strong grasp of cultural norms, as well.
As you move into a more advanced understanding of ASL, you’ll also notice your interpretation skills improving. This means you can translate back and forth between ASL and English more easily than before, both in your own mind and to others who don’t understand ASL. As you get better, this process becomes faster and more natural.
Why should you learn ASL?
If you know Deaf people who use ASL, there’s a clear benefit to learning ASL. However, there are also reasons why everyone should consider learning ASL. Here are three:
#1: It makes society more inclusive
Millions of people use ASL, and while some of them can use a spoken language, many rely on ASL to communicate. Unfortunately, ASL is often not respected as “real” language. People who use it face discrimination in a variety of ways whether it’s not getting subtitles on movies, being refused service at stores, or no getting hired at certain jobs. Learning ASL helps make society more inclusive.
#2. It has positive effects on the brain
Learning any language benefits your brain, and ASL is no exception. Research shows benefits like improved creativity, concentration, and overall brain functioning. An article on bilingualism in Knowable Magazine describes how knowing another language affects your brain’s “white matter.” White matter allows messages to travel quickly to the brain, and as you get older, knowing another language preserves this white matter and keeps your brain functions healthy.
#3. It enhances your awareness and observation skills
Because understanding and using sign language depends so much on reading movement and facial expressions, your spatial awareness and observation skills naturally improve. You’ll get better at reading everyone’s body language, whether they’re using sign language or not.
What skills do you need to learn ASL?
When you’re learning ASL, three main skills will help your journey:
Skill #1: Patience with repetition
There’s a lot to remember when you’re learning ASL, and the only way to get better is to practice. There will be a lot of repetition, so you’ll need to be patient. Learning any language requires patience, but because ASL is so unique and aspects of it are very challenging, patience with repetition is an especially important skill.
Skill #2: Strong focus
Because ASL is a visual language, you need to concentrate to keep up. You aren’t only paying attention to your (and another speaker’s) hands; facial expressions are also crucial in learning and understanding the language. As you progress, focusing will become more natural, but the need for concentration never goes away completely.
Skill #3: Quick thinking
When you’re in an environment where people are both speaking and signing, you need quick-thinking skills to comprehend everything and switch back and forth. Even if people are only using sign language, your brain still has to translate quickly.
What tools do you need to learn ASL?
You don’t need a lot of materials to learn ASL, but three resources can make the learning process easier:
#1. A course
Taking an ASL course is the best way to learn the language quickly. There are many options available online, often for a fairly affordable price. The Balance Careers has found classes as cheap as $15-25 per class, while more intensive ones can cost up to $1,000. Taking a class in-person can also be very helpful and help you find people you can practice with.
Flashcards are one of the most common learning tools. For ASL, they’re best used when you’re memorizing the ASL alphabet and common words. They’re portable, so you can study just about anywhere. As you progress into more conversational ASL, the flashcards won’t be needed as often.
#3. An ASL app
ASL apps can be very useful, especially when you’re a beginner. The ASL App, which was designed by Deaf people, teaches conversational ASL. Through 1,000 videos, it teaches 2,500 phrases and signs. There are other features like a slow-motion option and a search index. You can find other app options, often for free, which are available for your smartphone.
How to learn ASL
In total, ASL can take 5+ years to truly master, though some people may have an easier or harder time. It’s technically possible to teach yourself ASL, but just about every source we found recommended some kind of instruction. Receiving direct instruction ensures you’re signing correctly and not developing bad habits that can be hard to undo. It’s also important to practice frequently. Having real-world conversations helps you see where you’re progressing and where your learning gaps are. Most importantly, you want to be culturally sensitive and respectful if you aren’t deaf. Commit to learning about the proper etiquette regarding things like introducing yourself, getting a Deaf person’s attention, and so on. To learn more about Deaf culture, accessibility, and ASL, accounts on platforms like YouTube and TikTok can be very interesting and educational.