Contributed by Debbie Clason, staff writer, Healthy Hearing
Not only is learning a second language good for your brain, it’s also a great way to expand your communication skills. This is especially true for American sign language, which is the fifth most-used language in the U.S.
What is sign language?
Juan Pablo de Bonet is credited with publishing the first sign language instructional book for the deaf in 1620. The book was based on the work of Girolamo Cardano, an Italian physician, who believed that it wasn’t necessary to hear words in order to understand ideas.
To clarify, there is a big difference between ASL as a language versus signed English. Those who speak ASL fluently use their eyes, hands, face and body. The vocabulary and grammar of ASL is also different from English. As a result, learning to speak ASL as a language will be more demanding than just learning to communicate with signs and fingerspelling.
Who uses sign language?
Some experts argue early man likely used signs to communicate long before spoken language was created. And while we’ve all come a long way since then, whether you’ve pressed your index finger against your lips to hush a noisy child, raised your hand to hail a cab, or pointed to an item on the menu, you’ve used sign language in its simplest form.
Anywhere from 500,000 to two million speak American Sign Language (ASL) in the United States alone. It’s the fifth most-used language in the United States behind Spanish, Italian, German and French. While that ranking varies depending on the source, it should definitely be considered as one of your options if you’re looking to learn a second language.
The Deaf Community
American Sign Language is the primary language of many North Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing. Not only is ASL different from signed English, it is also as different from its European counterpart as English is to French. Much like those with normal hearing can detect accents from different parts of the country, those who speak ASL can also detect geographical dialects and slang.
As much as 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents, which can make learning sign language a family affair. Parents who learn ASL along with their child often find it easier to communicate on a deeper level with their deaf child. Studies also indicate when a child who is deaf or hard of hearing learns ASL, their ability to learn their native language improves.
Some parents of normal hearing children teach their infants signed English. Advocates believe babies can learn to communicate their needs – such as being hungry or thirsty – through the use of signs before they are able to speak. Scientists believe children who learn a second language when they are very young develop better language skills. Due to its visual nature, sign language is a great tool for early readers and enhances spelling skills.
If you’re still employed, learning ASL may enhance your career and give added benefit to the workplace.
- Educators. Today more than ever it’s common for educators to have children who are deaf or hard of hearing in their classroom. Many opt to learn ASL for this reason alone; however, others decide to become certified to teach ASL in the public schools. Educators with ASL teacher certification are qualified to teach ASL to both hearing and deaf students.
- First responders. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), hearing loss is the third most prevalent chronic health condition facing older adults. As the population ages and the incidence of hearing loss increases, sign language becomes more and more relevant – especially in emergency situations when communicating with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing is critical.
- Service providers. Social workers, counselors, psychologists and medical professionals are also finding it beneficial to learn sign language. In fact, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that hospitals provide an appropriate means of communication to any patient, family member or visitor who is deaf or hard of hearing. The ADA also covers legal, education, law enforcement and employment systems.
Baseball aficionados may be interested in learning that the signals baseball players use to communicate with each other are the result of a deaf baseball player by the name of William “Dummy” Hoy who played for the Chicago White Sox in the early 1900s. Since umpires shouted all the calls at that time, Dummy and his third-base coach worked out a series of signals to communicate balls and strikes. The practice caught fire and soon became common use among players, managers and umpires.
Today, most every major sport uses some type of sign language between coach and player. Not only does it keep the other team guessing, it also provides a great way to communicate strategy when fans are making it difficult to hear.
Why you should learn sign language
It’s growing in popularity.
Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, ASL has become one of the most popular language classes in colleges and universities.
Learning a second language is good for your brain health.
Swedish scientists discovered that learning a foreign language can actually increase the size of your brain. Scientists also know that people who speak more than one language fluently have better memories and can delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
The rewards are immeasurable.
When someone you love can’t hear, ASL is a great way to communicate in a rich, meaningful way. It’s also the best way to develop awareness and sensitivity to the Deaf culture, a community of non-hearing individuals which number more than one million in the United States alone. Whether you teach your baby to sign or learn ASL to communicate with a deaf friend or family member, you are using a full-bodied form of communication that will enhance your relationship as it improves your mind and spirit.