How challenging is it to master American Sign Language?

Why is learning American Sign Language (ASL) a challenge? One of the big misconceptions about sign language that hearing people generally has the impression that learning a signed language is easy. It is not.

On the first day of the ASL 101 or 111 every semester, I tell my students that learning ASL is no easier than any other spoken language. One thing that I never tell my students is that ASL is grouped into... I'll get back to this.

The degrees of difficulty for language learning

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the U.S. Department of State has a list of languages categorized by their difficulty for learning for native English speakers below. It has five categories that show the approximte length of time you need to learn a language as a native English speaker to reach "Speaking 3: General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (S3)".

Category I (23-24 weeks or 575-600 hours) for languages closely related to English. E.g. Danish, French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and so on.

Category II (30 weeks (750 hours) for languages similar to English: German.

Category III (36 weeks or 900 hours) for languages with linguistic and/or cultural differences from English: Swahili, Malaysian, and Indonesian.

Category IV (44 weeks (1100) hours for languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English: Zulu, Ukrainian, Nepali, Latvian, Finnish, Polish, and so on.

Category V (88 weeks or 2200 hours) for languages which are exceptionally difficult for native English speakers: Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean.

Where would ASL fall on this continuum for native English speakers?

ASL in the FSI Category

Mike Kemp in his journal article explains, "Francis, of the Foreign Service Institute, proposed that ASL should fall into Category II (1980). On the other hand, Jacobs viewed that ASL should fall into Category IV (1996). She believed that an average English speaker must take 1320 hours of instruction to reach an ASL proficiency level of 2.

There is apparently no consensus on which category ASL is in. But, it's clear that ASL is not in Category I for a few reasons.

First, ASL is very different from English on every linguistic level from phonological and phonetic to morphological and syntactical. Knowing ASL signs (words) is not the same as knowing the language (ASL). ASL has a grammaticaly rich, complex construction beyond basics.

Second, culture and language are integrated; Deaf culture is different from English-speaking culture. Even though a culturally Deaf person and hearing English-speaking person live in the same country, they don't share the same culture of their languages.

Third, the modality is different. Hearing people are not accustomed to using a different set of articulators for speaking ASL or any signed language.

Learning ASL as a second language may be natural for a few students, extremely difficult for a few, and somewhere between fairly not-so-hard and some difficult for the rest of the students. It's a typical curve.

From our observations as ASL instructors who are Deaf native signers, I'd say ASL may be fall in somewhwere between Category III and IV, especially due to grammar, structure, and subtleties, and perhaps Category IV for the overall fluency.

The proficiency level

This statement by Jacobs, who viewed that ASL should fall into Category IV (1996) that "an average English speaker must take 1320 hours of instruction to reach an ASL proficiency level of 2" fits somehow with what is observed in the world.

The number of hours of language learning plus the years of interpreting program with the post-program training and the interpreting practice for a number of years usually reaches the proficiency level of 3 to 3.5 out of 5 (native level).

Recommended readings

Kemp, Mike. "Why is Learning American Sign Language a Challenge?" American Annals of the Deaf. July 1998. Vol. 143, No. 3.

Abstract: In recent years there has been an explosion of interest in American Sign Language (ASL), the language used by Deaf Americans. As a result, an unprecedented number of schools and agencies now offer ASL classes. This welcome development signals growing awareness of and respect for the American Deaf community and ASL. Unfortunately, misconceptions persist about ASL. One major misconception is that it is an easily learned, picture-like language. This understanding is due partly to the fact that some of the first basic signs learned may be thought of as iconic (e.g., signs for eat, sleep, and drink). This even leads some new ASL learners to believe they can become instructors after one or two classes. This mistake is not made among people learning a spoken language. ASL is a complete and complex language, with all the nuances and subtleties of a spoken language. Like all languages, it is not mastered easily beyond a basic level. Mastery requires extensive exposure and practice. Presently, there is no consensus on where ASL might fall on a learnability continuum for native English speakers. Nonetheless, this article posits that learning ASL should be approached with respect and with the knowledge that mastery only occurs over a substantial period of time."

Jacobs, R. (1996) "Just how hard is it to learn ASL? The case for ASL as a truly foreign language"’, in Lucas, C. (ed.) Multicultural Aspects of Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities, Washington DC : Gallaudet University Press.

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