How do I Learn South African Sign Language?

Learning South African Sign Language is similar to learning any foreign language.

Learning South African Sign Language (SASL) may seem daunting, but in fact the process is quite similar to that of learning any foreign language. According to the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, nearly 500,000 deaf South Africans use SASL and yet, due to years of misunderstanding of the Deaf community, there are very few SASL interpreters. Dedication to learning SASL will open you up to the deaf South African community and may even put you in the position to interpret the language professionally.

Familiarize yourself with the basic movements. While it may seem obvious, SASL is "spoken" using your hands, arms, and even your face. Using your instructional book, try signing the letters of the alphabet. Next, try to sign some basic phrases such as "Nice to meet you" or "I live in...." If you have an instructional video, be sure to mimic the signer as accurately as you can. Pay close attention to the location, movement, shape and orientation of her hands. Also check to see if any facial movements or expressions are involved. These components make up all sign languages and are critical to learning SASL. You can think of this step like learning the "sounds" of the language.

Study the syntax and grammar. Don't think that just because you're not speaking you don't have to learn grammar. SASL has very specific grammar and syntax rules that are different from English. Pay attention to how the sentences are formed in your instructional book. For example, you should notice that the overall sentence structure is usually Object-Subject-Verb while English is Subject-Verb-Object. Compare SASL "Dogs I like" versus English "I like dogs."

Practice. As with all languages, practice is critical. Work through the chapters in your instructional book, but be sure to spend adequate time between lessons. You should be able to comfortably sign at least 80 percent of the material in the lesson before moving on to the next lesson. If you have a video, try repeating the same phrase over and over until you match the signer exactly.

Interact with other signers. If you live in South Africa, seek out an organization in the Deaf community where you can practice signing. If you live outside of the country, try to find someone you can sign with over the internet through video conferencing. Direct feedback from a native signer is your most valuable resource.

Further your education. If you are interested in becoming an SASL interpreter, you will need professional education. Several organizations in South Africa teach SASL professionally. See Resources for three places where you can learn SASL.

  • 1 "Language Files"; The Ohio State University Department of Linguistics; 2007

Collier Jackson has been writing professionally since 2010. Writing for various websites, he specializes in topics related to foreign languages, linguistics and Asian cultures. Jackson holds a Bachelor of Arts in Chinese from The Ohio State University.