Why Learn a Sign Language With a Qualified Deaf Instructor?
By Cynthia Benoit, Audrey Beauchamp, and Charline Savard
Thinking about signing up for a sign language course? Since it is a significant investment of time and money, it’s always a good idea to choose your trainer wisely and to be sure that they are a qualified, Deaf native signer.
Here are the six key reasons for doing so.
1. Sign languages are living languages that are constantly changing
Like any other language, sign languages are living languages that change over time. Just think of the different words that have emerged over the past 30 years, such as internet, Wi-Fi, Google (and the verb “to google”!). Just like the Francophone community, the deaf community in Quebec had no choice but to develop terminology to be able to express these terms in sign language.
To be fully aware of the linguistic changes in sign languages, it’s important to maintain a continuous presence in the heart of the community and interact with a large number of deaf and hard of hearing people from different backgrounds. Who better to teach you a sign language than a Deaf native signer?
2. The key differences between signed and spoken languages
Because sign languages are visual and spatial languages, their form is different from that of spoken languages such as French and English, which are expressed orally and in writing.
The challenge of learning a sign language lies in the fact of having to communicate by using your hands as well as different facial movements, such as movements of the eyebrows, eyes, mouth, head and nose, while at the same time proficiently coordinating all these grammatical and linguistic elements. This is often a shock for hearing learners who are used to hearing their voices as they speak and monitoring what they say with their ears, which is impossible with sign languages (Kemp, 1998).
In his article1 explaining why American Sign Language (ASL) is so difficult to learn for a person whose first language is English, Jacobs compares ASL to oriental languages such as Arabic, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean, particularly because of the significant linguistic and cultural differences with English. In addition, the time required to learn the language is considerably longer than for category 1 languages, such as those identified by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in the United States, which include Swedish, Danish and Italian.
The following table, taken from the FSI, shows the levels of difficulty for learning languages based on how long it takes to learn them and how different they are from English.
Table 1. Levels of difficulty for foreign language learning by English speakers, according to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI)
Although there is still no consensus as to which category ASL should fall into with respect to level of difficulty in learning, we can say for sure that it isn’t in the first two, which include Spanish, French and German, among others.
Taken from: Foreign Language Training, by the Foreign Service Institute [Accessed on February 28, 2022]
3. Intuition isn’t enough
You learned your mother tongue, whether it be French, English or any other language, within your family and at school and you’ve spoken it since you began to talk. Does this mean that you are automatically qualified to teach this language as a second language? No! Intuition is clearly not enough, and the proof is the many academic programs that qualify a person to become a second-language teacher or trainer.
The principle is the same for sign languages. Not just anyone can become an LSQ trainer or provide optimal results without having received the proper training beforehand. At this time, there are no programs for teaching LSQ as a second language in Quebec, but there is at least one in the United States (see MASLED), that we may discuss in one or more blog posts to come.
At CBLS, to compensate for this shortcoming, we developed an in-house training program. Our trainers have to go through a number of steps before they can begin to deliver training. These steps include an interview, an LSQ skills assessment, a series of courses on LSQ linguistics and courses on teaching LSQ as a second language. In addition they must regularly take relevant courses or workshops in order to keep their knowledge up to date regarding teaching and linguistic trends in the field of sign language teaching.
4. Offering you a gateway to the deaf community
Learning a sign language with a deaf trainer can only increase your confidence when you meet deaf people. Your sign language skills will improve a lot more quickly if, from the very beginning, you have practised with a deaf person qualified to teach sign language.
Believe us, you will gain a much better understanding of all the linguistic subtleties of sign language! Often, people who learn sign languages with a hearing teacher feel uncomfortable when they meet deaf people. Their proficiency in sign language and ability to understand suffer as a result.
5. Avoiding cultural appropriation
Would you learn an Aboriginal or Inuit language with a white person rather than an Aboriginal or Inuit person? Surely not! It’s as inconceivable for these languages as it is for sign languages.
It still happens all too often that hearing people identify themselves as LSQ “teachers” on their social media pages after learning this language. This is a perfect example of cultural appropriation. We understand this love for the great language that sign language is, but please, leave this space for deaf people themselves.
The Office québécois de la langue française defines cultural appropriation as follows: “The use, by a person or group of people, of cultural elements belonging to another culture, generally a minority culture, in a way deemed offensive, abusive or inappropriate”.
We are by no means trying to scare or accuse you. Being aware of the gestures and micro-gestures that we make on a daily basis with respect to deaf people can only help build healthy relationships with the members of the deaf community.
6. Encouraging the employability of the Deaf
Given the pervasive discrimination against deaf and hard of hearing people in the job market, why not encourage them by doing business with a Deaf trainer? In doing so, you are promoting their employability and their contribution to society.
You will also be assured of good social acceptability from the deaf community, who will see this action as a sign of respect towards their cherished language.
In fact, accepting that sign language be taught by a hearing person is frowned upon by the deaf community as a whole because it places the hearing teacher in a privileged position. It can, in fact, be perceived as a sign of ignorance or insensitivity as well as a lack of respect for the members of the community, without whom sign language would have no reason to exist.
Taking sign language classes is still one of the best ways to learn. And if you learn from Deaf trainers, you’ll have a front-row seat as you discover the key facial expressions and learn much more than just vocabulary, while having fun at the same time!
1- Jacobs, R. (1996). Just How Hard Is It to Learn ASL? The Case for ASL as a Truly Foreign Language.
Dans C. Lucas, Multicultural Aspects of Sociolinguistics in Deaf Communities (p. 183-221). Gallaudet University Press. http://gupress.gallaudet.edu/2897.html
2- Kemp, M. (1998). Why is Learning American Sign Language a Challenge? American Annals of the Deaf. Volume 143. 10.1353/aad.2012.0157