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Using ASL to Learn a Foreign Language – Family Language Solutions

Using ASL to Learn a Foreign Language


I’m the kind of person who likes to try new things. Every now and then an opportunity comes up and I can’t resist the urge. Right now, I have a student of mine who happens to also be fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). I’ve been teaching her Russian for a while now, and she’s been making consistent progress. One day, we were working on a lesson and were using TPR (see my article on Total Physical Response here) and she commented, “Oh, what you did is actually the sign for that word in ASL.” I studied ASL in high school, though that was half a lifetime ago and I only remember finger spelling and a handful of other signs. When I mentioned this, she told me that she also had studied it, and soon I had an idea: What if we used ASL as our medium for TPR in our Russian studies?

We talked about it and decided to give it a try. The next lesson, as we went through our exercises, she signed each word as she said it in Russian, and then signed the ASL equivalent of the sentence while she said it in Russian. I noticed an immediate improvement. By the end of our first lesson, she was confidently taking on whole sentences with new vocabulary and completely understanding the meaning of them. She went from struggling one word at a time through things to communicating entire phrases and sentences confidently. Honestly, I was amazed.

We have since been continuing this for a while now, and her rate of Russian progress has probably doubled from what she was doing before.

While this idea was new to me, others have already thought of it. In looking around the internet, I discovered a Spanish tutor (see his site here www.askpaulino.com) who teaches the Spanish alphabet using ASL.

There was also a study done by St. Catherine’s University in St. Paul  in which a group of preschool and elementary age students studied Spanish vocabulary using ASL. They learned a group of words with the accompanying signs, and another group without any signs, and at the end of the study, could recall the vocabulary they learned with the signs much better than the other vocabulary.

This really makes sense because you are using the same fundamental principles of TPR, in which physical motion causes your brain to become more engaged in the act of learning the language.

My student and I have decided to make this a staple part of our lessons, and I found myself needing to brush up on my ASL. One resource that I found that has been very helpful is a phone app called Sign School. It is available on Google Play here.

Aside from offering daily new vocabulary, this app comes with a video dictionary with thousands of signs. Each sign can be viewed at normal speed, at slow speed, or looped repeatedly to help you learn it.

I have to give the caveat that I realize in using these signs to aid in teaching Russian, I am not always following correct ASL grammar. As my goal is not primarily to master ASL, I have been using standard Russian word order to dictate the order of the signs that I am using. This is in no way meant to disrespect the Deaf community who use ASL as their native language on a daily basis, and I do hope when time allows to put the signs I use into a proper grammatical structure. However, the language in and of itself is an excellent tool for learning.

I should have thought of this much sooner. My wife and I noticed almost two years ago the way that sign language has helped my son who has mild Asperger’s syndrome with language learning. Despite his challenges, he has grown up in a multi-lingual environment, and has a decent level of understanding in English, Russian and Azerbaijani, though speaking confidently has always been a challenge for him. For a while, he was attending a Russian-speaking school that required him to learn and memorize short poems for his lessons. He struggled and struggled with this until we started making use of signs to help prompt him with the poems. It was only then that he was able to raise to the level of the rest of his classmates on these assignments.

For a while, we decided to start using the Signing Time video series to teach him and our other children some ASL, and my wife and I noticed that whereas he had struggled for his first five years to confidently use his native language of English, and had even more difficulties with his other two languages, he picked up sign language like a one-ton pig picks up day-old gas station doughnuts (True story. I grew up on a farm, and one time, the only way we could get a 2000lb sow out of her pen and into a trailer to take to the vet was with a trail of several dozen Casey’s day-old glazed doughnuts. But I don’t blog about pigs, so, back to the point).

I for one have decided that I am going to not only keep using ASL to help my Russian student, but also to help my children with other languages they study, and for myself as I hope to take on a fourth language in the near future. I haven’t decided which one yet.

I would encourage you to do the same, whether or not you make use of any of Family Language Solution’s resources. Below are some links to some useful ASL resources for you.

Here are some links to Signing Time’s materials which are available on DVD or Amazon Prime streaming.

About the Author: David

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