Starting the journey to learn a new language isn’t so simple. With myriad online resources for language learners, you need to do your due diligence to ensure you’re using high-quality tools to accurately learn a language. We learned this firsthand when members of the Deaf community pointed out to us that an ASL course we highlighted a few weeks ago — led by a hearing teacher with 20 years’ experience — featured a number of incorrect signs. (We’ve since stopped pointing to that class, of course.)
To help identify what people need to look for in a quality ASL course, we reached out to experts in ASL: Renca Dunn, a Deaf activist and creator with a large following on Instagram; Melissa Malzkuhn, director of Motion Light Lab at Gallaudet University, founder of The ASL App and a 2018 Obama Fellow; and Felicia Williams, who holds a master’s in Sign Language Teaching and is a recipient of the Dr. Nathie L. Marbury Award from the Department of ASL at Gallaudet University. All members of the Deaf community, the three led a wide-ranging discussion with CNN Underscored, touching on everything from why students need to do their homework to what to look for in an ASL course and great ASL learning options.
From that discussion, we’ve created this guide — one we plan to continuously update — on where those interested in learning ASL can get started.
What to look for in an ASL course
The National Association of the Deaf points to the American Sign Language Teachers Association (ASLTA) for setting the standards for instructors of American Sign Language. The ASLTA notes that a qualified instructor will be accredited by them and have at least five years of experience using the language. Many qualified instructors have also earned degrees specifically in ASL or Deaf Studies, are members of ASLTA chapters or regularly attend professional events in ASL education or Deaf studies.
The experts we spoke with — Dunn, Malzkuhn and Williams — emphasized that there are additional benefits to having a Deaf individual (or a member of the community) teach the course, as they’re personally familiar with the “deep and rich history of ASL” in the Deaf community.
In short, if the person leading the ASL course you’re looking into doesn’t mention an ASLTA certification, a degree in ASL or Deaf Studies, doesn’t lay out if or for how long they’ve been immersed in the Deaf community or, worse yet, missing these three altogether, your best bet is to look elsewhere.
This context is especially important to consider when turning to e-learning sites, such as Skillshare or Udemy. While Udemy does feature a number of ASL courses taught by those who are either part of the Deaf community or have degrees in ASL and/or Deaf Studies, there is no wholesale requirement for courses to be led by those holding certificates of any kind. “No approval is needed for an instructor to get started and create a course,” Cara Brennan Allamano, SVP of People, Places, and Learning at Udemy, tells CNN Underscored in an email. “Traditional education has many rules around who can teach and what should be taught. We believe anyone with expertise and passion can share their knowledge with the world.”
Therefore, the due diligence is on the student choosing the course — and it’s best that you read each instructor’s bio to confirm they meet the above criteria. “Our platform is like the Amazon of learning; while each course goes through a technical evaluation before it’s published in the marketplace, we believe students are best equipped to evaluate the effectiveness of Udemy courses,” says Allamano. “Ratings and reviews are completely transparent to students — students decide whether a course is valuable to them.”
Why due diligence matters
When considering ASL courses, a professor or instructor who is a part of the Deaf community helps to ensure that you’re learning proper signs and getting the cultural context.
Malzkuhn stresses the importance of learning from a member of the Deaf community, who knows the language and is immersed in the culture. “It’s like with traveling — sometimes you meet people who say, ‘I’ve been to this country,’ but it’s really an airport layover,” Malzkuhn says. “There’s no immersion. It’s similar when taking an ASL course from a random, unqualified teacher — you only get a layover.”
The culture manifests itself in the nuances and mannerisms of ASL, something you’d miss out on if you learn ASL from the wrong instructor. Akin to a spoken language, in which different inflections in accent or pronunciation can create a difference in tone, ASL’s cues include body language and facial gestures. Simply, an individual who’s part of the Deaf community can get those across to an ASL learner, and opting for an instructor who hasn’t been immersed runs the risk of lacking this critical knowledge for properly communicating with ASL.
Dunn further explains that it’s not just about signing with your hands, but it needs to “incorporate the history, culture, people, body and facial grammar. And so that’s why [some] people are not qualified to teach, because they don’t have all of that richness.”
So, when you opt for a less-than-qualified teacher, you risk elongating the cycle of ASL that can hinder the community. “When hearing people learn sign language incorrectly, they then become our interpreters. They become our communication access. And then we Deaf people continue to suffer from language deprivation and communication deprivation because of these people interpreting and signing incorrectly,” says Dunn.
What are the best ASL learning options?
There are many Deaf individuals and other qualified teachers who offer courses and the chance to learn ASL through digital courses as well as in person. We took direction from Dunn, Malzkuhn and Williams to lay out a few of your best options:
The ASL App
The ASL App is a digital tool available on Android or iOS that teaches conversational ASL that came about after its creators found social media users posting how-to-sign videos on their feeds. Some were right and others were not, but social media has the tendency to offer a runway regardless of quality.
As a result, a group of culturally Deaf, native signers — including Malzkuhn — got together and made the app. The ASL App is designed to be a starting point and to help bridge communities together. It’s a pretty robust app, with a large following on social media — currently with more than 47,000 followers on Instagram — with a wide library of content available. It’s also an excellent place to start and get a foundation of basic conversational elements. You can find it in the App Store for iOS or iPadOS, on the Play Store for Android or on Instagram.
Offering in-person and online courses, ASL Connect’s learning options run the gamut from “Beginner Fingerspelling” to ASL courses at a variety of levels and others that dive into Deaf culture. Those include an introduction to culture studies, Deaf women studies, ASL literature and Deaf Black studies. This language school aims to be a resource for learning American Sign Language and for teaching Deaf culture, both core aspects to look for in a course. The cost varies by course, with fingerspelling courses coming in at $316 for each one and ASL I through IV coming to $950 before textbooks and other materials.
Gallaudet also offers introductory “ASL for Free” courses, which are split into vocabulary and interactive online conversations.
This language learning option takes it a step further than most by connecting you with individual mentors, many of whom are Deaf individuals. Essentially you can sign up, select a topic of ASL that you’re interested in and get paired with a professor. Sessions happen online and you’ll need to purchase credits to attend the classes. ASL Mentors sells 30 minutes of credit for $15 or a full hour for $30. Those interested in becoming a mentor will fill out a small application, which asks if they are Deaf qualified or a native signer. After that, ASL Mentors will vet the applicant.
Options for beginners
In addition to the ASL App and free courses from Gallaudet University, there are a plethora of beginner courses. Signed With Heart is a YouTube channel that offers several lessons taught by Ashley Clark, all of which are available for free. Clark uploads to her channel, but also offers a Fingerspelling 101 Course for $15. Both can provide a foundational element for learning ASL.
Similarly, DawnSignPress offers instructional videos and books to learn ASL that weave in elements of Deaf culture. It’s a great option to move onto after learning the basics. And those looking to learn as a family or with young kids should take a look at VL2 Storybook Apps, which uses storybooks based on ASL and English to further literacy development.
There are a number of accounts on social media that teach elements of ASL for free.
@TheASLShop on Instagram posts a new sign video every day; recent words covered include “brick,” “bridge,” “allergy” and “seem.” Stephanize Zornoza, a member of the Deaf community, teaches each video. She has over 73,000 followers on the platform and a back catalog of over 200 videos.
@deafinitelydope, aka Matt Maxey, not only signs and raps in videos on the platform but also has begun teaching basic ASL. Maya and C3 (@thearielseries), Stacy Abrams (@whyisign), Justin Jackerson (@TheASLLab) and @QueerASL all offer sign language instruction in the form of videos on Instagram as well, and all were recommended by the experts we spoke with.
@DeafFamilyMatters seeks to educate viewers on Deaf culture in sign language through their family, which is a mixture of Deaf and hearing members. It’s a great way to learn about the culture and some sign language at the same time in bite-size forms.
In the same vein as VL2 Storybook above, @WhyISign is a great account for families to follow while learning sign language, as they highlight personal stories of members of the community.