Learning sign language brings on a bundle of amazing wonders. Whether you have full, partial or zero hearing, the process of learning sign language brings with it a palette of benefits. Let's explore top reasons.
Becoming bilingual in any two languages, whether signed or spoken, is quite an amazing enhancement to the human brain.
Neuroscientists have known for decades that learning a new language enriches and enhances cognitive processes: higher abstract and creative thinking, better problem-solving skills, greater cognitive flexibility, better listening skills, greater academic achievement, and more! It also promotes cultural awareness, literacy, and other intellectual benefits.
Bringing sign language into the bilingualism equation enhances our bimodalism -- that is using a visual-spatial medium, expands your visual-perceptual skills: spatial awareness, mental rotation skill and visual sensitivity and more!
Hearing newcomers to signing immediately find it a "fascinating", "beautiful", "unique", "graceful" and/or "expressive" language. The deeper signers they delve into, say, ASL, the more complex and challenging it becomes. But, as with anything worthwhile, it's remains a fulfilling pursuit and experience over the long run.
Fingerspelling is not exactly a language unto itself. It's a set of the alphabetical letters corresponding to spoken words. Fingerspelling can help hearing students learn how to spell a word letter by letter. Some teachers (and students) use fingerspelling for their spelling lessons in class. The fact that i's considered a receptive skill exercise is an added bonus.
According to the Modern Language Association's statistics (2016), ASL had become the third most studied modern/foreign language at colleges and universities in the U.S., after Spanish and French, up from fourth in 2009. Furthermore, it has a higher percentage of enrollments above the top three second languages studied.
Among hundreds of signed languages in use around the world, ASL is used in the commonly used in the U.S. and Canada. The 2016 Canada Census data revealed 27,510 people reporting a sign language as the language used at home, including ASL (11,465) and LSQ (2,570) in Canada, among those who responded to the survey (not everyone did). The US Census Bureau doesn't include ASL in its census-taking, so it's difficult to determine a precise number. But, estimates in the literature range from 500,000 up to 2,000,000 ASL speakers in the U.S.
Speech is, of course, not a language unto itself. Speech and signing are a medium or modality of communication, while Enligsh, ASL, and other spoken and signed languages are defined as true language. This is because language is brain-based, not modality-based.
Which brings us to deaf babies. It's vital that, once identified as such, a deaf baby is exposed to a natural language, such as ASL, Auslan (Australian Sign Language), or another signed language within the first five years of life -- known as the crucial "five-year window" -- for acquiring a language. Of course, that exposure must be continued well beyond that time window.
The ear is to a hearing baby what the eye is to deaf one. Both offer equal access to their respective languages from birth. Both have similar milestones in language and literacy skill acquisition, just different means. Eventually, deaf toddlers can learn a second language (e.g. English) with ease.
By the way, 'baby sign language' is a cultural appropriation. It's a distorted concept as much as 'baby speech language' that doesn't exist (other than natural parentese which can be found in any languages, whether signed or spoken).
You might think the Deaf people miss out on music. But hearing is a two-way street. Hearing non-signers can miss out on the literary arts within sign language to appreciate its creative language play, poetry, and storytelling qualities.
Sign language, with its inherent rich capabilities of cinematic devices, rhymes, rhythms, calligraphic movements, and many other facets, adds a dynamic spice to the totality of the language arts.
Humanity's interest in communication with animals (and possibly vice versa) has a long time, and has been put into practice through speaking, signing and art. Sign langauge was perhaps most famously applied with the chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky (a pun on the name of linguist Noam Chomsky) and Koko the gorilla. Another example is the use of speech language with parrots. And elephants for painting.
Basic knowledge of a signed language can be a useful communication tool for many outside the Deaf community, including firefigthers, police officers and various professional civic servants, as well as among scuba divers, stock traders, military personnel and more.
Naturally, awareness of the cultural appropriation is a must when using a signed language. More importantly, an intention for the use of signed language in such professions is for communicating with Deaf and Hard of Hearing people in any setting.
Sign language ships with some extra goodies that vocal-aural modality lacks. One can use sign language with a mouth full of food without offending, through the windows of a building at a distance, in loud settings such as concerts or nightclubs, or even via whispering (yes, there's whisper-signing) in a church or a library.
When two people manually talk in a private room, they can rest assured that nobody is "over-eyeing" them through closed doors. Furthermore, signers can even talk privately in the public realm where nobody knows sign language. Of course, the risk that someone understands sign language must be factored in. Which is why it always pays to have a few cryptic and slang signs between close friends.
Cultural note: It's rude to watch Deaf people signing in public. If you have never seen sign language in action before and you are fascinated, we understand an occasional glance of curiosity.
Whether to exercise your brain, expand your range of friends beyond the hearing, or exchange secrets among your Deaf inner circle, learning to sign has only upsides.
Posted 2005, updated 2021.