Language proficiency in sign language

How does one determines, assesses, or judges a signer's fluency and proficiency level? How do hearing non-signers perceive? How do hearing signers perceive themselves and others? How do native Deaf signers observe?

Assessments can be done through grades or marks in ASL courses. Another is the language proficiency interiview (LPI). Another, screenings may be conducted for placements in the language courses. Another, personal comments in everyday life.

Language Proficiency Interview

Some schools for the deaf, language departments at universities, agencies, employers and other programs may require ASL Language Proficiency Interview (LPI) to evaluate a candidate's language proficiency in a face-to-face interview.

ASLPI consists of a structured interview of about 20-60 minutes of conversation, which is carried out between a candidate and a trained interviewer. ASL interviews are conducted either through videophone or in-person and recorded for raters.

ASLPI certified interviewers and raters, who are Deaf native/fluent in ASL, have undergone training and years of ASLPI experience.

The rater evaluates a candidate's signed language over performance in communicative competency including fluency, vocabulary, grammar, comprehension, etc. Then, the candidate is given an overall score, ranging from 0 (the lowest) to 5 (the highest proficiency).

Signing skill levels

ASL Language Proficiency Interview (ASLPI) is an assessment tool used to determine proficiency level, conducted by a qualified organization that is recognized by Deaf community.

According to the language proficiency levels of Gallaudet University in the U.S. as well as Sign Language Institute Canada, the following language proficiency levels in ASL are summarily described as: [source]:

Level 0: Unable to function in the language.

Level 1: Able to satisfy routine uncomplicated and minimal communicative needs.

Level 2: Able to satisfy social routines, limited work requirements, and basic conversations about family, work, and other familiar topics.

Level 3: Able to sign ASL with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations pertaining to practical, social, and professional needs.

Level 4: Able to use the language fluently and accurately on all levels pertaining to professional needs.

Level 5: Language proficiency equivalent to that of a sophisticated native signer.

The level of ASL courses doesn't reflect a signer's language proficiency. Courses from different institutions have differnet number of instruction hours, whether the course is a credit or not, and other factors.

Level 0 of ASL language proficiency

For the level 0, it's self-explanatory.

ASL proficiency level zero

Sufficiently demonstrated. :)

Level 3/4

Qualified and/or certified hearing English-ASL interpreters are typically rated as somewhere between Level 3 and 4. Entry interpreters may be somewhere 2 and 3.

Roughly speaking, it takes 2-3 years of credit courses in ASL. Then another 2 years of interpreting training before one enters in the entry-level interpreting field.

Level 5

Generally, Deaf native signers are born and raised speaking ASL, often who come from native-signing, Deaf families (not always as few parents may be oral deaf), grow up in bilingual Deaf schools, and involve in Deaf community regularly.

Deaf signers of hearing parents, who grow up in Deaf schools and get involved in Deaf community from early age, may be native signers as well.

However, since the 1980s, a large number of deaf children of hearing parents are forbidden from using sign language and are mainstreamed in public schools. Many of them acquire a signed language at later age.

A number of native Deaf signers have been on the decline in the early 21st century due to many Deaf schools being closed across North America. However, there is still a good number of bilingual Deaf native-signers around.

Many native and fluent signers tend to "tune down" their ASL for interpreters to make sure their message is conveyed correctly as much as possible. Away from interpreting situations, Deaf signers speak at their natural level of fluency with their friends and Deaf signers.

Language adaptability

Personal comments can be highly subjective. Deaf people often are delighted that hearing people learn signed languages no matter how little the hearing people know the language. They commonly say in ASL (translated as), "You're signing so well!" even if the hearing person is a very beginner.

Broadly, this usually indicates that a Deaf person appreciates that a hearing person learns ASL and is capable of carrying some level of conversations with them whether it's basic or fluent.

Whether hearing non-signers, signers and interpreters realize or not, Deaf signers routinely roll down their signing level to match a hearing signer's level in their one-to-one conversations. They don't have much opportunities to see the raw ASL in Deaf parties at homes, where Deaf signers feel at home with their language, chatting, bantering, arguing, teasing, and/or debating with their friends.

Deaf signers also routinely adjust their signing level and style for the interpreters or to fit the interpreter's level to make sure messages get across right. Even Deaf native signers and Deaf of Deaf family, who routinely request for coda* interpreters and/or the top interpreters, still sometimes adjust their signing level, speed, and/or style to make sure their message gets across more accurately, because interpreting is not an easy job and requires a processing effort in the brain. *CODA is a child or adult child of Deaf parent(s).

Language awareness and Audism

Audism is a painful reminder of the hearing systemic oppression. Learning ASL (or another language) comes with inseparable history, culture, and heritage. Sweeping audism under rug for niceties is difficult. Learn with compassion and we teach with compassion.

The purpose of this story is to offer hearing people and signers an insight into our language, to respect Deaf people's language and their expertise and to mitigate linguicism.

Hearing self-perception in signing

Scenario: A certified Deaf ASL-English interpreter (native-level signer) shared in his vlog about his experiences at work, where he observed some audism in the interpreting agency. One of his stories was that a hearing interpreter complained that she received a rate of four when she believed she should deserve a five. There were many cases when a hearing signer overestimates their sign language skills.

Scenario: At an out-of-town Deaf-run artist retreat, each Deaf artist has a one-to-one meeting with a hearing artist-mentor with one of the interpreters. To enlighten an interpreter in training about the true nature of language that they don't often see in real life, a professional coda interpreter of her 8th generation of Deaf family and one of the best interpreters in North America (and often hired at the Deaf international conferences) took an opportunity to ask a talented, brilliant Deaf of Deaf family (DODA) for permission to bring her interpreter-in-training to her meeting. The Deaf casually declined.

The coda interpreter explained the reason, trying to convince. The Deaf artist slowly agreed to some degree, since she and the interpreter knew each other for a long time, even they are not from the same province/state. Note that Deaf of Deaf family (doda) is 5-10% of the deaf population and a coda interpreter (who grows up speaking in sign language as their first language at home) is also in this similar minority of interpreters. In addition, a coda born to doda is also in the double minority, unlike the majority of codas who are born to Deaf parent(s) of hearing family. This combination of the coda interpreter of Deaf family generations and the doda of deaf families is a rare opportunity for an observer.

During the meeting with the professional hearing artist-mentor and the Deaf who has a Masters degree in media arts, this was no ordinary talk. At this time, the Deaf spoke ASL at her natural pace only with that specific coda interpreter which is rare as she always adjusted her ASL to fit any other interpreter's. They discussed in-depth at the professional level in art through the interpreter (remember there was no preparation for the interpreter), while the observer sat, listening.

After the meeting, the coda interpreter thanked the Deaf artist and explained that the interpreter-in-training was overblown, learning so much and was in awe when observing lightning and high-level conversations. This rare opportunity gave the trainee a rare insight into what the fullest-fledged level of language is alike versus her everyday perceptions and observations.


If you have received a mark or a proficiency level rate, it gives a general assessment. However, it doesn't tell the whole story. More importantly, focus on your process in language learning and keep progressing.

Deaf people often appreciate that hearing people learn signed languages no matter how little the hearing people know the language.

Related posts

Related posts: How long does it take to learn sign language?

Resources: ASL proficiency programs.

New to sign language? "Where do I start?" or "How do I start learning sign language?" This ASL Rookie guide lists some selected links to the tutorials for ASL beginners to get started and keep rolling. It may be a useful review for intermediate-level learners and ASL students as well.

Some tutorial pages are a mix of free and premium versions. Access to premium content and links below are available in the PatronPlus subscription. More links/posts will be added from time to time.

Expressing needs and wants

  1. Making commands or requests

Talking about activities

  1. Frequency of time: how often?

Are you able to carry everyday conversations in ASL? Are you a student in the intermediate levels and beyond, who wishes to boost up your signing skills? You've come to the selected tutorial series. (Some premium content are available to PatronPlus membership.)

Stories, poems, performance arts, etc. in sign language.

This documentation project follows a child's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, from newborn to age five in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.