Learning American Sign Language (ASL) is fun and anyone can do it, especially YOU! But, you might be wondering how long it takes to learn ASL. The short answer is – it depends. Learning a new language can take months to years depending on multiple factors, such as:
- The quality, structure, quantity, and location (e.g., church, library, high school, college, private instructor, self-study, community-based association) of the classes or courses you take
- Different class settings offer a variety of approaches to learning, as well as a variety of content. For example, an educational institution may follow a prescribed curricula or textbook, whereas a community-based organization might be more informal or less rigorous.
- The proficiency of your instructor(s)
- Is your instructor native (or near-native) in ASL?
- The materials you use to learn ASL
- For example, textbooks, dictionaries, videos, and apps are widely available and some are better than others.
- How often and how long you study and practice
- It should go without saying that the more you use the language, the more fluent you’ll become.
- How often and how long you interact with native language users
- Immersing yourself in the Deaf community has become increasingly difficult. Prior to the COVID 19 pandemic, I would suggest joining an ASL meetup. With those dwindling in availability and few hosting meetups online, it is becoming more common to search out virtual ASL meetups through your social network. If all else fails, try a basic Google or Facebook search for “Virtual ASL meetups.”
- The quality and quantity of the ASL videos you watch and ASL apps you use
- Consider who made the video you are watching. Is it a DVD that came with an ASL textbook? Did another novice ASL student make a video and post it on YouTube? For suggestions on reputable videos to watch, check out ‘How to Learn ASL Online: Strategies for Beginners.’
- Refer to ‘American Sign Language Apps and Other Resources’ for suggestions on the best ASL apps to use.
- Your age
- Research indicates that the younger you are, the easier it is to learn another language. The older you are, the more difficult it becomes to learn a new language. But, regardless of your age, learning a new language is possible.
Learning ASL, like Spanish or French, takes years to master if your end goal is to be fluent or near-native. And, it’s relevant to note that being “fluent” is subjective and non quantifiable. It’s important to consider how “fluent” you want to become, as that will directly impact the time commitment required when learning any new language. For example, it will take you less time to learn ASL if your goal is to be able to communicate with members of the Deaf community in social settings than it would take you to become a sign language interpreter for the Deaf.
If your goal is to understand and use ASL at a beginning to intermediate level, then two years of coursework will provide you the foundation for basic communication. But, keep in mind that memorizing signs and stringing them together using English syntax is not ASL – it’s a form of communication. From my own personal experience, it took me approximately 7 years to have good command of ASL, and that required daily practice and a large amount of immersion in the Deaf community.
Something I wish I knew when I started learning ASL
ASL is easy to learn, but difficult to master. Even after studying, practicing, and using ASL for years you may feel proficient, and even “fluent,” and still not have native-like signing skills. Further, ASL varies from region to region and changes over time, just like all living languages, so stay flexible and don’t be discouraged.
Tips That Will Speed Up Your Progress
- Immerse yourself in ASL, Deaf culture, and the Deaf community. The more genuine interaction you have, the faster you’ll learn. This is likely quite difficult during a pandemic, so search out virtual ASL meetups and attend them regularly.
- Move beyond memorization and apply what you’ve learned when you can. Use what you learn with the Deaf community and colleagues studying ASL. Encourage classmates to go to “silent lunches” or “silent dinners” so that you can practice together. Host virtual meetups and ask your instructor, Deaf friends, and others to join.
- Focus on learning the signs for words that you use the most. Then, you’ll be more likely to practice them.
- Put yourself out there, make mistakes, and keep going. You will make progress equal to the effort you put into learning.
- Find a mentor who is fluent in ASL and meet with them often.
- Work with a private ASL instructor through TakeLessons who can focus on your specific needs, wants, and abilities, while giving you their undivided attention. Language learning courses sometimes only move as fast as the slowest learner, making private sessions preferable to some.
Learning ASL takes time; it takes years. But, over time your fluency will improve and signing will become more intuitive. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how long it will take you to learn ASL, but whether you want to have conversational ASL skills or sign proficiently in professional settings, set a goal for yourself and work hard to achieve it. Learning a new language is a journey, not a destination.