This node is addressed primarily at hearing people who wish to learn sign language. It is a very different process if you were born deaf1 or have lost hearing later in life. I can however write about hearing people learning sign language because I myself have spent the last few years learning it. Although I have learnt and am still learning New Zealand sign language, this node is relevant to any Deaf culture from any country.

Why Learn?

This is something that is different for each person, for me it was a combination of things from wanting to learn another language to a general desire to learn about the Deaf community. However for you it could be a totally different reason. Below are some of the reasons people learn sign language.

  • To learn another language.
  • To learn to communicate, or further communicate with a Deaf relative, friend or coworker.
  • To be able to communicate when using your voice or hearing is not possible. Scuba diving is where I have found this handy.
  • To help you understand and learn about the Deaf culture.
  • To further your career prospects. A lot of people who learn sign language use it at their work place.

And there are many more. If you feel I have left out an important one, /msg me and I will be happy to add it in.

Where to begin?

One of the things that stops a lot of people is not knowing where they can learn it, or finding the time to learn it. This is a lot easier than you first might expect. Most cities have schools that offer community education centres or offer night school classes, these places often offer sign language courses. Otherwise you can contact your local Deaf education centre and enquire as to whether they offer classes or can point you in the right direction. Most classes will run once a week, and most of the time they will be offered at night, so you can work it into your schedule.

In New Zealand, you could contact the Kelston Deaf Education Centre in Auckland. In the UK, I have heard the Dorothy Miles Cultural Centre is another such place that will be able to help. For other countries, try your local phone book.


One of the most important aspects of learning sign language is to have a tutor or teacher that is deaf, it is very difficult to learn from someone who can hear and speak. Having a deaf tutor may seem counter-intuitive at first, since how will they be able to talk to you? However you will find immediately that even without speech, communication is possible, that is what sign language is about! A deaf tutor will force you to use sign language in class, there is very little other way of explaining yourself or asking a question if your tutor is deaf. (Most people learn the sign for toilet by the end of the first class :))

Extracurricular activities

As is the case with any language, the best way to learn it is to go out and practice it. This can range from simply meeting with some of your classmates in the weekend for coffee and only using sign language. I do recommend going to at least the occasional Deaf club when you have a basic grasp of the language. These clubs are really a great way to practice your sign, however ensure that the local club does welcome sign language students.

Another activity that is offered at least in New Zealand and I am sure a lot of other places in the world is deaf camps. These are usually one weekend camps where for the entire weekend you never say a single word. At this time I have not had the chance to experience one, however everything I have heard about them put attending one as one of the things that are really great for improving your vocab and sign recognition.

Here I will make mention of a part of the Deaf culture that surprises a number of people when they first realize it. The Deaf are *very* forward and unsubtle. The language does not have much room for subtly, and even though you are told this in class, you really haven't experienced it until you've seen Deaf stories. There are very few topics that are taboo in conversation, certainly not any topics most Western cultures are use it. Some people can get offended by this when first learning sign language, but just remember, this is a different culture, just like if you were visiting another country.

Books and reference material

You will most likely be offered a few small books and guides when first learning sign language. One of these will probably be a small book containing some signs you will learn. These books will most likely be sufficient to learn sign language. However I do recommend purchasing a sign language dictionary after awhile, to enable you to learn new signs without having to ask your tutor. I also recommend purchasing a book or two about the local Deaf culture (see People of the eye for a great book about the New Zealand Deaf culture).

How long will it take?

Until what? Until you can sign the alphabet? Until you can hold a basic conversation? Until you can hold an everyday conversation? Like with learning any language the answers to these questions vary greatly with your own abilities and the environment. It is also difficult to rank its difficulty compared to other languages, since almost each country has its own sign language. However with New Zealand sign language, which is based off British Sign Language I would put its difficulty at slightly less than an English speaking person learning German as their first foreign tongue. But as I said, it depends on the person, some people are uncomfortable with expressing themselves with physical actions rather than words and those who know more than one language already may have an advantage.

1. In this node I use the deaf convention of using an uppercase 'D' when referring to the Deaf culture and people who identify as being deaf. A lowercase 'd' in deaf is the physical disability of profound hearing loss.