Selecting a Sign Language Class



  • Sign Language courses differ from each other in several ways:
  • courses labeled as "Sign Language Courses" may actually offer instruction in American Sign Language or in a Signed System (Signed English);
  • teachers themselves may vary in degree of Sign Language competency;
  • courses are structured very differently and offer very different curricula depending on
    whether the course is:
    • for professional preparation, usually for credit, or
    • for general conversational preparation, usually not for credit.

Frequently Asked Questions

The information presented here may be helpful to you in selecting a Sign Language course for your particular needs.

What is ASL?

American Sign Language (ASL) is the natural, native visual gestural language primarily used by members of the Deaf culture in the United States and Canada. It is the fourth most commonly used language in the U.S. ASL is not based on, nor is it derived from English or any spoken language. It has its own grammar, lexicons, facial expressions and body shifts. It is not a universal language nor does it have a written form.

What is Signed English?

Signed English, as used in the MCDHH Sign Class listings, refers to coding systems which attempt to represent English visually. These systems are usually referred to as forms of Manually Coded English. There are several forms of Manually Coded English or Signed Systems (for example, Signed English, SEE I, SEE II, and others). These Signed Systems borrow signs from American Sign Language but use them with English sentence structure. Some of the Sign Systems also invent new sign symbols to represent English words and grammatical markers such as "ed", "ness", and so on. Unlike ASL, facial expression or body movement to indicate grammatical functions are not used with signed systems.

What is Deaf Culture?

Many Deaf people in the U.S. do not consider deafness as a physical condition; rather, they see it as an ethnic identity. Those who accept this identity see themselves as members of a proud and distinctive subcultural group known as the Deaf Community. The Deaf Community is composed of people who use ASL as their primary means of communication; in addition, the Deaf Community, like any other subcultural groups, adheres to certain particular social norms and values that are passed from generation to generation.

Which should I take, ASL or Signed English?

It depends on what your goals are, personally and/or professionally. It also depends on the communication needs of the Deaf community. If you want to communicate with a wide variety of deaf people or to learn a new language and culture, ASL would be the answer. If you are working in or plan to work in a profession or job situation that involves deaf people who communicate in ASL, taking ASL courses would be appropriate and beneficial.

Signed English is useful for people whose primary language is English and who will be using English supported by Signed English. People who lose their hearing later in life, hard of hearing people, and elderly persons who want to learn sign language as a supplementary means of communication would be inclined to choose and use Signed English.

If I complete several courses in Sign Language, does it mean I will be ready to interpret?

No! The most important first step towards becoming an interpreter is achieving near-native fluency in ASL. This requires at least two years of continuing ASL instruction and frequent, daily contact with deaf people who use ASL. It is difficult to acquire fluency and competency by just attending formal classes. To develop mastery in ASL requires understanding the linguistic components of ASL and Deaf Culture, as well as constant exposure to and interactions with members of the Deaf Community. To become an interpreter, it is necessary not only to be bilingual and bicultural, but to have the ability to mediate meanings across languages and cultures, both simultaneously and consecutively. This often takes years of practice and training.

Are there any other career opportunities where I could utilize signing skills which I might acquire?

Yes! You can use your skills in any field in which you might interact with deaf people and especially in specialized services for deaf people, such as Teachers of Deaf children, Rehabilitation Counselors for the Deaf (RCDs), Social Workers for the Deaf, Case Managers for the Deaf, Substance Abuse Counselors specializing in deafness, or Supervisors of Residence Programs for the Deaf. There are opportunities in other professions like legal services and community services where American Sign Language proficiency can be extremely useful. Deaf people work in different sectors of employment, and have supervisors, coworkers, and/or subordinates who use or are taking Sign Language to foster communication.

A strong language base is fundamental when approaching any of these career opportunities. It is encouraged to maintain contact with the Deaf community, not only for language but for the understanding of Deaf Culture and how it relates to these professions.

If I am interested in becoming an interpreter, an RCD, or another kind of specialized worker related to services for the deaf, where can I get more information?

You can call the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. We have a list of interpreter training programs and information about other deafness-related programs for training and advanced study in Massachusetts and throughout the US. Our numbers are as follows:
(617) 740-1600 Voice, (617) 740-1700 TTY, and (617) 740 - 1880 Fax.

If there is no class near my home, what should I do?

Community colleges and continuing education programs are interested in responding to the needs of persons in their communities. If they get enough requests for a Sign Language course or program, they may be interested in setting one up and should be encouraged to contact MCDHH for information. This also applies to ASL classes for children. There are classes that are offered that are geared toward children, but if there is enough interest to set one up, again, contact MCDHH for more information.

The Massachusetts State Association of the Deaf, Inc. (MSAD) also may be interested in establishing a new class in a region in which it does not currently hold classes. So, if you cannot find one, you can contact MSAD, 220 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, at 781-388-9115 TTY, 781-388-9114 Voice, 781-388-9015 FAX or send an email to:

Special Note: If you notice a course offering called "PSE" in a sign language program, the following offers a description of what PSE really is: Pidgin Sign English, or PSE, is a term used to describe sign language varieties that occur when ASL and English users try to interact with each other. It occurs when two people of two different languages and cultures, namely deaf and hearing people, attempt to communicate using a mixture of features and structures of each language. It is not a pure language but a communication system to facilitate understanding each other. The system of communication varies from one person to another, depending on one's skill and knowledge of the other's language.

Using Discretion

Choosing a Signed Language class should be a process. There are many ideologies surrounding that choice. Language is viewed in a continuum that ranges from American Sign Language to Signed English . There are different needs in each community.

Lists and books that will instruct American Sign Language will never replace the learning that is done through interaction with the Deaf community. There is a cultural identity that is shared by the users of American Sign Language. Similar to spoken foreign language instruction, learning from a "native" speaker/signer will enhance your results. As well, interaction with the community can also be useful to strengthening your skills. Volunteer opportunities within the community in which you live may provide resources that will support and reinforce your language base.

Information on Structure of American Sign Language

Baker, C. and Cokely, D. American Sign Language: A Teachers Resource Text on Grammar and Culture, TJ Publishers, Silver Spring, MD; 1980.

Baker, C. and Padden, C. American Sign Language: A Look at Its History, Structure, and Community, TJ Publishers, Silver Spring, MD: 1978.

Klima, E. and Bellugi, U. The Signs of Language, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA: 1979.

Siple, P. (Ed.). Understanding Language Through Sign Language Research, Academic Press, New York: 1978.

Wilbur, R. American Sign Language and Sign Systems, University ParkPress, Baltimore, MD: 1979.

Deaf Culture

Baker, C. and Battison, R. Sign Language and the Deaf Community: Essays In Honor of William C. Stokoe, National Association of the Deaf, Silver Spring, MD.

Gannon, Jack R. Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America, National Association of the Deaf, Silver Spring, MD: 1981.

Jacobs, Leo M. A Deaf Adult Speaks Out, Gallaudet University Press:Washington, DC: 1980

Additional Information

Contact the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing for more information on the following topics:

  • Deaf Culture and History
  • ASL/Deaf Literature
  • Deaf Education
  • For Parents of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children
  • Materials for Children & Young Adults
  • Information & Practice Materials Related to Sign Language Interpreting

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