The American Sign Language Phrase Book CD-ROM Review

The American Sign Language Phrase Book CD-ROM

Video Review by Chris Wixtrom     © 2001

The American Sign Language Phrase Book CD-ROM
Based on The American Sign Language Phrase Book, by Lou Fant

PC Minimum Configuration:

Windows (R) 95/98 operating system
133MHz Pentium or faster processor
16 MB of RAM
2X CD-ROM drive

Macintosh Minimum Configuration:

Macintosh (R) System 7 or higher
100MHz PowerPC or faster processor
16 MB of RAM
2X CD-ROM drive

Distributed by Sign Media, Inc.
4020 Blackburn Lane, Burtonsville, MD 20866-1167
Phone: 800.475.4756 (voice/tty)
; Fax: 301.421.0270
URL:; E-mail:

The American Sign Language Phrase Book instructional CD-ROM is a light "traveler's bag" of ready ASL phrases. While most ASL lesson programs for self-instruction load you up with a lot of vocabulary or heavy grammar baggage and leave you lost in the lowlands, this one flies you right onto a mountain top with just enough signs and sentences to get you down the mountain, through the village and right up to the city gates, ready to strut your stuff in classes or just let you breathe a bit easier when you hang out with the signing crowd.

Those gung-ho for braving lessons in native grammar might not go for this soft little CD-ROM. But many language learners will grab for a handy little guide like this. In James J. Asher's Learning Another Language Through Actions, he recommends "playing with" a language in everyday context to get a feel for "understanding and expressing thoughts in the target language" (1996, Sky Oaks Productions, p.54). Students, he says, should try using the language on a trip to a store or a restaurant. Barry Farber, who taught himself 25 languages, is a nationally syndicated talk host, founder of The Language Club, and author of How To Learn Any Language (1997, Citadel Press).  He also recommends trying out languages in real situations, right away. Beginning students want to practice using natural phrases before they attempt to learn formal grammar. A language may have very complex grammar, Farber says, but "(G)rammar is like ... good table manners. It's perfectly possible to live without (them) if you're willing to shock strangers, scare children, and be viewed by the world as a rampaging boor." Well, it isn't that bad. To those who insist on learning the grammar of a language, he asks, "(W)ho says you've got to have it first, as some kind of brutal initiation? Where is it written that you must wrap cold, wet blankets of grammar around your eagerness to learn another language until (your interest) disappears?" (p. 43) "(W)hat is really important," he insists, (p. 33) is that you learn enough of a language "to delight the heart" of someone who uses that language.

The American Sign Language Phrase Book program offers this. With it, you can learn to talk about everyday things such as animals, food, health, numbers, religion, school, and travel. The two Deaf sign models are fairly easy to follow - though the guy looks a bit grouchy - but if the signs seem too fast, just click the "turtle" symbol to slow them down. Other adjustments allow you to take the signs frame-by-frame, go backwards or forwards in the lesson, or search for something specific. You may learn or review in "standard" or "random" order, and ask for three different types of practice.

I couldn't find anything difficult about this CD-ROM. It would likely provide the learner with better "watching and understanding" skills than actual sign production ability, but that's the way it is in any self-teaching situation. Correct pronunciation of a language must be shaped by mingling with fluent users or getting a teacher's individual feedback. A disadvantage of CD-ROMs is the small size of the screen image, as compared with video programs or live signers. If you want videos, there is a set of three available, along with the original book, from Sign Media, Inc. The author of the book was the late Lou Fant, a highly respected member of the Deaf community who made his mark as a friend bridging deaf and hearing social groups, as well as in his professional acting and interpreting roles and as a founding member of the National Theatre of the Deaf. Let him extend his legacy by helping you sign just enough to delight your Deaf friends.

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