According to Wikipedia, with 955 million native speakers, comprising more than 14 percent of the world population, Mandarin is the most commonly used language in the world. The second and third most popular are Spanish and English, though each has considerably fewer speakers with 405 and 360 million respectively.
But American Sign Language (ASL)? It doesn’t even crack the top 100 most frequently used languages. And, depending on which site is the most believable, only anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000 people worldwide—or, as it is, just in the United States and Canada—use the language. It makes sense, as it is used predominately by deaf native signers, hearing children of deaf parents, and adult deaf signers who have learned ASL from other adult deaf individuals. And, apparently, some random person who thought it’d be interesting to learn. That person being, of course, me.
While it would have been more practical to learn Mandarin, Hindi or Arabic (the fourth and fifth most widely spoken languages after Spanish and English), or perfected my very minimal Spanish—despite having studied it for a year in middle school, and then two years in both high school and college—I thought learning sign language would be more fun.
I have known one deaf person, and it was a boy in my middle school homeroom class. I therefore have been around ASL users (my peer and his translator), but it was ages ago. Before embarking on accomplishing this goal, I had a very basic grasp of the language, as in I could sign the letters of the alphabet, and “poop.” Because what middle school kid doesn’t learn “poop” in at least one additional language to his or her native one?
I found a brilliant website, www.lifeprint.com, which I used as my teacher. I broke the big goal of learning more than the alphabet into a smaller goal of learning at least five signs a day for one month. I had already realized that I could stick to monthly goals, like practicing spirituality for one month, and not saying anything negative about anyone for one month. Each day I planned to review the signs I had learned previously and add five new signs. What I quickly realized was that learning ASL was fun, and unique, and I often learned more than five signs a day. At the end of the month, I kept learning, and now have in my repertoire more than three hundred signs.
While I initially thought it was kind of a silly goal, because I was fairly certain I wouldn’t ever really use it all that much, I recently learned how handy it is for SCUBA diving. Diving has its own set of hand signals and signs, but some of them are similar to ASL signs, and having a decent grasp on ASL made learning the new signs easy. Also, even if other people don’t know ASL, I can use the signs with them because many can be intuitive, or somewhat easy to figure out based on the setting and context of the conversation or situation.
Though I feel I can get by with the little sign language I know, I hope to continue learning more signs. Perhaps one day, on the very rare and random occurrence that I come into contact with an actual deaf person, we might be able to communicate.