Here's How to Start Learning Sign Language

All of last week, Her Campus at UPR has been publishing articles about the deaf community and we've been highly emphasizing that you learn sign language. We realize that some people don't know where to start, so here's your definitive guide! There are ways to start small with learning sign language. Before starting to learn the actual language, it's super recommended that you educate yourself about Deaf culture first.

Deaf Culture

Deaf culture is essential in the knowledge of sign language. That's because Deaf culture, their sense of community, and their methods of communication that actually paved the way for the creation of sign language. The concept of Deaf culture may be confusing for some people because culture is often associated with national identity, and that you can only have one cultural background. However, Deaf culture arises and develops alongside your ethnicity and national identity.

In Puerto Rico, Deaf culture represents Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals who share a common language, common experiences and values, and a common way of interacting with each other, and with hearing people, but also live and celebrate Puerto Rican culture.

Alongside Deaf culture, comes history. The history of the Puerto Rican Deaf community is quite particular especially when you consider that there is documentation from over 100 years ago.

Deaf history in Puerto Rico has largely influenced sign language. Thanks to historical influences, like influences from other countries, and processes, the language has changed over the years. There is such a thing as Puerto Rican Sign Language (PRSL) and it may have been present before the establishment of the first Deaf school and the use of Signed English and American Sign Language (ASL). However, since there have been many interactions between the Puerto Rican Deaf community and the United States Deaf community and ASL is continually sued in Deaf school is Puerto Rico, this has lead to ASL being the most common used form of sign language in Puerto Rico.

In other words, the sign language used here in Puerto Rico is American Sign Language (ASL) due to North American influence and our socio-political relationship with them, but Puerto Rico still has its own sign language. PRSL includes signs for words that are only used here, such as “mofongo”, “tostones”, “presentao’”, “buen provecho”, the names of all 78 municipalities, and home signs that are made up in households and are used within families. Puerto Rican signs also represent elements of Puerto Rican culture, like our body language, the way we express ourselves, and the influence of the Spanish language.

PRSL is considered a dialect or a variety of ASL, some people consider it as its own language completely separated from ASL, but we can infer that it’s like a mixture of both. It all depends on which part of the island you are; in urban areas, particularly the metropolitan area, ASL is used more, while rural areas and other municipalities in the southern, southeastern, and western parts of the island use PRSL more. When learning sign language, we recommend starting with ASL because it is more formally organized and more accessible to learn in terms of availability of resources (books, videos, classes, etc.). There haven’t been a lot of investigations that study PRSL and gather information about it to learn/teach it objectively. We recommend two ways to learn it: through Aida Luz Matos’s book called Aprende Señas Conmigo, because it has several Puerto Rican signs, and the other way is through the interaction with the local Deaf community. There is also a digital glossary being developed by HPC Events, which will post different videos of Puerto Rican signs on Instagram.

Basics of Sign Language

With Deaf culture in mind, you should start by learning the alphabet and the numbers. That way, if you are in a situation where you need to communicate with a Deaf person, you at the very least know the basics, and you could try to string together words. First, you need to know which of your hands is your dominant one. Do you use your right hand more or you left hand more? The dominant hand is usually the one you write with. Once you know which of your hands is the dominant one, you will use that one for signing letters and numbers. Here’s an infographic that will help you out.If the image isn’t clear enough, there are great videos on YouTube through which you can learn sign language. The video below is very important because it includes the letter ñ in sign language, which doesn’t appear in most ASL studies because ñ is a letter used in Spanish, not in English.

When signing the alphabet, you should elevate your hand to the level of your chin and mouth (keeping your elbow down), so if you are mouthing the words you are signing, Deaf people can read your lips as you sign. You should keep in mind that not all Deaf individuals can read lips; this is a common misconception.

To learn the numbers, start with learning 1 through 30. From 1-5 is pretty much the same way hearing people have done it, but from 6 and so on, things change. After the number 23, things get simpler, because you just add the signs for those two numbers; you sign the number 2, then you move your hand a little to the side in a smooth movement and sign the number 3. Letters and numbers are only signed using one hand, but there are other sign languages such as British Sign Language (BSL) that use both hands. Sign language is not universal, meaning it is not the same in every country.

Since numbers from 10 and so on have a specific movement that helps identify the number, take a look at this video:

After getting the hang of numbers and letters, you need to work on punctuation:

For this part of sign language, it's so important that you make many facial expressions. Facial expressions in sign language function like the tone of a person’s voice, hence it completes the message being transmitted. As you may have seen in the video, the signer furrows their eyebrows and sometimes leans forward to indicate that what they’re signing is a question. With other signs, the speed at which it is done, the facial expression the signer has, the position in which the sign is done, the body language the signer expresses and the overall emotion that is being portrayed also adds meaning to what is being transmitted; it completes the message. All of those things are essential when learning sign language and can be enhanced through the interaction with Deaf individuals.

After you get these very basics down, you need to learn basic vocabulary words in sign language, and you’ll start memorizing them as you go on. We start with different topics, but usually the first one is family (signs such as “mother”, “father”, “sister”, “husband”, etc.), then emotions (“happy”, “sad”, “angry”, “doubtful”, etc.), food, days of the week, months of the year, weather, and so on. There are more many, many topics to learn about in sign language. With the months of the year, the signs we have for them in Puerto Rico differ completely from those taught in ASL. As you go building vocabulary in sign language, the next thing to do would be to study the grammatical structure of ASL sentences, which is not the same as the English or Spanish spoken language. The words are assembled in a different order and other words such as prepositions and articles are usually not included. According to ASL Rochelle, there are two basic ways of structuring sentences in ASL:



TIME = which in English would mean tenses.

TOPIC = the subject of the sentence. Who or what are you talking about?

COMMENT/ACTION = the adjective, description, verb, what’s happening to or regarding the subject.

REFERENT = This is when you refer back to the subject/topic that you’re talking about.


This step usually takes a lot of practice, and it might be difficult to get used to at first, but it’s definitely manageable. Last but not least, another important element that should be added when learning sign language are the classifiers. It’s recommended to learn about classifiers when you are in a more advanced level of sign language classes because they can be a little tricky. Classifiers are defined as designated handshapes and/or rule-grounded body pantomime used to represent nouns and verbs. The purpose of the classifier us to provide additional information about nouns and verbs such as location, kind of action, size, shape, and manner.

The final step you should DEFINITELY take is signing up for sign language classes! Learning only from online sources, videos, images, and links may not be enough, because there’s a big chunk of information that is missing, like Deaf culture, facial expressions, body language, Puerto Rican variants, and a lot more things. Without classes and without interaction with Deaf individuals, you'd have a huge gap in information. If you want to learn sign language, it's nuances and it's complexities, taking classes is the right way to go, and if the teachers are Deaf individuals, that's even better!

In Puerto Rico there are many places where you can learn sign language, so here are some of the best places you can learn sign language.

 Servicios Orientados al Sordo, Inc. (SOS)   Colegio San Gabriel para Sordos   American Sign Language Educational Services (ASLES)   Sign Language Interpreters, Inc. (SLI) 
 787-530-7464   787-783-3455   787-452-9925   787-751-1797 
 Río Piedras, SJ, PR   Puerto Nuevo, SJ, PR   Mayagüez, PR   Guaynabo, PR 


 On Signs ASL E-School, LLC    Asociación de Intérpretes Cristianos     Instituto de Educación Continua de la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Puerto Rico  
 787-237-1300    787-314-8419     787-841-2000 Ext. 2532, 2661 or 2563  
 Online, PR   Island-wide   Ponce, PR 


We hope this is informative enough to understand the basics of sign language and motivates you to keep learning. Our goal in our organization,(CUACS), is to create awareness of the Deaf community and their needs in and out of our campus and create inclusion. One of the ways of achieving inclusion is through the learning of sign language, so let’s get our sign on!