Learning Irish Sign Language


The Irish Sign Language (ISL) manual alphabet

I’ve been learning ISL now since I was a scraggly-haired undergraduate in UCD in the mid-90s, and the wonderful Mark McCaffrey was teaching a class through the Disability Society there. That was over 25 years ago – and I’m still learning every day more about this rich, complex and intricate language. ISL isn’t some communication tool invented by hearing people; it’s a fully fledged and complex language that has been perfected by Deaf people, and used most fluidly and fluently by them. It can be different to English in its grammatical structures and possibilities that are astounding. And at long last, it has received State recognition in the 201 Irish Sign Language Act. (Though that does NOT mean it’s ‘Ireland’s third official language’ contrary to what you might hear.)

ISL is like any language to learn: it takes a lot of time and effort. It’s not just doing a sign for each word, as so many people still think. It isn’t just a matter of learning the ISL manual alphabet you can see here. It can be difficult and challenging, but it can be amazingly rewarding and beautiful.

I’d recommend anyone looking to learn ISL to find a class taught by a qualified (preferably Centre for Deaf Studies, TCD) teacher. Therefore, I’m recommending the Irish Deaf Society and their classes – they should be happy to arrange classes with qualified Deaf teachers, in both remote and in-person environments. Also, make sure that your ISL teacher is a member of the Council of Irish Sign Language Teachers (CISLT).

I also have to state my opinion that a Deaf teacher is generally better. Deaf people who have grown up with the language are the real masters of it – and therefore, superior teachers if you are looking to master this language that forms the first and preferred language of the Irish Deaf community. All my teachers (including the great Stephen Bates, Patrick Matthews and Carmel Grehan) have been Deaf themselves. They have been fantastic, skilled teachers, without whose teaching I wouldn’t be able to do the work I do now.

Can you learn ISL online? Well…. online resources don’t really get you far in terms of your own fluency and ability to sign – that’s what you need a class and a real live teacher for! Again, I recommend ISL online resources created by Deaf people – there’s a lot (like, a LOT) of hearing people out there who seem to want to jump into being (really bad) online ISL ‘teachers’ after learning the extreme basics. Not really something you’d do for Russian or Arabic – so why for ISL? Go to those teachers who’ve got ISL as their native language!

Here are some online resources that can help your learning – alongside learning in a class. Links to these are below.

  • Particularly good are the “ABC of ISL” TV series that was shown on RTE and that they have recently digitised. (Yes, very 90s vibes, but the vocabulary has stayed the same!) These are hosted on Vimeo so you might need to open a Vimeo account before viewing.
  • I also really like Alvean Jones’ [mysticvean] series of ISL YouTube videos for the more advanced learner. Some of these are subtitled for ease of understanding. Alvean’s videos use a wide range of signers from different age groups and showcase a varied selection of ISL vocabulary and grammatial features.
  • Another great Deaf ISL teacher, Karol McGuirk, has a series of new YouTUbe ISL lessons online too.

FBFacebook also have some great Groups you can join with tons and tons of videos and resources. A good place to start is What is the sign for this in ISL? where you can ask about different ways to sign words.

For the more advanced learner, you can move on to the Irish Sign Language (ISL) Vlogs and Films page – hundreds of videos made in ISL by a wide range of Deaf signers – and it’s fun too!


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