Studying American Sign Language

ASL Degrees & Where to Find Them

The fourth most-popular language, American Sign Language is a surprisingly versatile area of study that can lead to myriad careers. Almost any workplace or field can benefit from an employee fluent in ASL, and students looking to study it can choose from a variety of focus areas and degree levels. Find out more about the different certificates and degrees available for American Sign Language, how students can benefit from learning this unique language, and the different careers open to those with an ASL degree.

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What ASL Degrees & Certificates Can You Earn?

Generally speaking, there are two different tracks in which ASL-related degrees and certificates are available: ASL/English interpretation and ASL language and Deaf culture. The first type of program helps prepare students for a future career in ASL/English interpretation and translation. These programs may also include preparation for an ASL/English interpreter certification exam.

The second type of program is often geared towards students with little to no knowledge of ASL who would like to learn ASL and become more familiar with Deaf culture, Deaf society, and other aspects of deafness and the Deaf community.

American Sign Language/English Interpreting Track

Students of this track should take care to make sure their program is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Interpreter Education as well as the relevant regional accrediting body. Also consider obtaining a professional certification for ASL interpreting through the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf in addition to the program’s certificate or degree.

  • Certificate

    Certificate programs in ASL/English interpreting and translation help students already fluent in American Sign Language prepare for a career in interpreting. Students learn the analytical skills and ethical framework needed to be successful interpreters.

    Length of Program: Varies; approximately one year

  • Associate

    Associate degree programs in ASL/English interpreting and translation are often intended for individuals — such as doctors or guardians of deaf children — who want to gain the knowledge and skills needed to sign and interpret ASL outside of a certified interpreting career. In some states (for example, Illinois) the training provided by an associate degree in American Sign Language interpreting is sufficient to become a professional interpreter.

    Length of Program: Approximately two years

  • Bachelor's

    Bachelor’s degree programs in ASL/English interpreting prepare students for a career in professional interpreting; students take courses in ASL to become fully fluent and learn the methods, standards, and ethics of interpreting. Programs often also include internships and work opportunities with local Deaf communities or organizations. Additionally, these programs may prepare students for the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf’s National Interpreter Certification Exam.

    Length of Program: Approximately four years

American Sign Language & Deaf Culture Track

  • Certificate

    American Sign Language certificate programs do not necessarily prepare students for a specific career; rather, these programs are often a foundation for further learning or an opportunity to explore fundamental aspects of ASL and Deaf culture.

    Length of Program: Varies; often a year or less

  • Associate

    Associate degrees in ASL are often geared towards students who plan to pursue a career that may involve working with the Deaf community or deaf individuals. These programs offer more in-depth explorations of American Sign Language and Deaf culture than certificate programs and bring students closer to fluency than a cursory or exploratory program would.

    Length of Program: Approximately two years

  • Bachelor's

    Bachelor’s programs in American Sign Language and Deaf culture help students gain fluency in American Sign Language and familiarity with the Deaf community, Deaf culture, and their unique characteristics. These programs generally do not prepare students for careers as ASL/English interpreters but skills learned can be easily applied to careers which work closely with or support the Deaf community.

    Length of Program: Approximately four years

What Can You do With an ASL Degree?

Simply put, individuals armed with an ASL degree and fluency in signing can do nearly anything. American Sign Language can be applied to almost any field in some way, meaning that qualified individuals who know American Sign Language are often in high demand. Additionally, students of American Sign Language can find careers in a variety of fields available only to those with their unique skills, such as those explored here.


ASL interpreters translate spoken language into sign language. Interpreters can work in a wide variety of settings, from schools to hospitals to courtrooms.

  • Median annual salary: $47,190
  • Employment outlook (2016-2026): +18%
  • Education needed: Bachelor’s degree and proficiency in American Sign Language
  • Skills needed: Listening, cultural sensitivity, concentration

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

Medical Interpreter

Healthcare interpreters do the vital work of assuring a patient understands their doctor and a doctor understands their patient. Individuals in this line of work help insure deaf individuals and the Deaf community’s access to quality healthcare and health related services.

  • Median annual salary: $44,756
  • Employment outlook (2016-2026): n/a
  • Education needed: Certification or more
  • Skills needed: compassion, quick thinking, good memory/recall

Source: Payscale, 2018

Deaf Educator

Deaf educator is a term that refers to teachers who work specifically with deaf students, possibly at a private school for the Deaf. As with teachers at hearing and/or mainstream schools, deaf educators may specialize in specific subjects or only teach certain grade levels.

  • Median annual salary: $58,980*
  • Employment outlook (2016-2026): +8%*
  • Education needed: In addition to an ASL degree or experience, a bachelor’s degree in special education or a related field may also be needed in addition to teacher certification or licensure.
  • Skills needed: Interpersonal, adaptability, patience

*For all special education teachers

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

Social Worker

Social workers help individuals and communities, especially those which are considered vulnerable, solve problems and overcome challenges which unfairly prevent them from thriving. Social workers fluent in American Sign Language can be especially valuable for working with deaf families, individuals, and children.

  • Median annual salary: $47,980
  • Employment outlook (2016-2026): +16%
  • Education needed: At least a bachelor’s degree in social work or a related field, in addition to experience or a degree in ASL.
  • Skills needed: Good and effective communication, empathy, problem-solving

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

Which Colleges Offer ASL Degrees & Certificates?

Schools across the country offer American Sign Language certificates and degrees, from small community colleges to large urban universities. Use this list to explore the many options available for learning American Sign Language, studying Deaf culture, or gaining the skills needed to become an ASL/English interpreter.

The Benefits of Studying ASL

Learning another language is often seen as a vital part of education (hence why colleges and universities require foreign language credits) and this is no different with American Sign Language. In addition to the common benefits of becoming multilingual, such as better cognitive and memory skills, American Sign Language fluency comes with a range of benefits unique to signing.

Valuable Skill in Any Field

Nearly every career — from retail industries to medical fields to politics — needs individuals who are fluent in American Sign Language in order to serve deaf customers, patients, and clients. Additionally, individuals fluent in ASL can help assure that products, services, and events are accessible to all community members, including those who do not — or find it difficult to — converse using spoken word.

Growing Career Field

Forbes named interpreting and translating to be the 15th fastest-growing field with a projected growth rate of 29%.

Language Spoken by Many

Estimates on the number of people who use American Sign Language vary wildly, but a 2005 study from Gallaudet University indicated that most sources agreed that the number of signers was in the hundreds of thousands. Considering the increased popularity and cultural visibility of ASL, that number has only grown since Gallaudet’s study was published.

New Form of Expression

For hearing individuals with little or no exposure to sign, ASL is an entirely new and creative way to express ideas, opinions, and even art.

FAQS on Studying ASL in College

Entering an American Sign Language degree or certificate program can be a big commitment, so of course prospective students have lots of questions. Here are some frequently asked questions by students considering pursuing an ASL degree.

  • What kind of people often take ASL classes?

    People from nearly every walk of life have reason to take ASL courses and even earn a degree in American Sign Language; individuals who have a deaf friend or loved one and want to better converse with them; people fluent in conversational ASL but want to refine their skills or become interpreters; professionals who need to better serve their deaf clients and/or the Deaf community; or students who want to learn a useful language outside of the standard Spanish-German-French offerings.

    “Students who enroll in [NCU]’s ASL program are those who want to work or teach in an educational setting or become freelance interpreters,” says Regina Daniels, the lead American Sign Language instructor in NCU’s Carlstrom Interpreter Training Program. “They also want to communicate with their friends and peers at school or work.”

  • Does ASL fulfill college language requirements?

    This often depends on the college or university in question. Schools that offer American Sign Language courses will typically consider them as fulfilling the foreign language requirement. For students who already have college credits from ASL courses and are transferring to a campus without American Sign Language courses, checking with a transfer advisor will be the best way to find out if their credits fulfill any requirements.
  • Can you take ASL classes online? Are there ASL-specific disadvantages to learning the language online?

    Yes, many colleges and universities offer ASL programs and courses online. While online programs have dozens of familiar benefits (like scheduling flexibility), learning ASL online may be difficult because students can have a difficult time finding someone to practice and converse with outside of the digital classroom.

    However, taking ASL online can have some distinct advantages. “Virtual language learning will encourage students to use a no-voice policy and to communicate with their professors and classmates in sign,” adds Daniels.

  • What should students look for in an ASL program?

    The first thing students should investigate before applying in a program is its accreditation; ASL/English interpreting programs should be accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Interpreter Education as well as whatever regional accrediting body the school falls under. Non-interpreting programs do not have a specific accrediting body; however, students should see if their potential teachers are certified by the American Sign Language Teachers Association.

    Students should also see if the program has students work with the local Deaf community. Immersion-style courses and programs can also help students learn a language quicker and better.

  • What are the main challenges a student is likely to face while learning ASL?

    For students who are learning American Sign Language without the end goal of becoming an interpreter, the main challenges lie in the fact that hearing students must learn to understand a conversation with their eyes rather than their ears. This can be especially difficult when watching — or participating in — a conversation between multiple people. “Students [may] feel uncomfortable using facial expression and mouth-movement,” adds Daniels.

    Students learning ASL with the intention of becoming interpreters face these challenges as well as interpretation-specific ones, such as learning how to think in terms of abstract concepts for faster and more accurate interpreting.

    Most importantly, students should remember that American Sign Language is a fully-fledged language with its own vocabulary, grammar, and nuances; like all languages, ASL requires years of hard work in order to gain full fluency. Some students may struggle with the differences from English. “Our grammar structure is not in order subject-verb-object. We use [grammar] differently,” says Daniels.

  • Good interpreters need more than just fluency. What other skills and knowledge do good interpreters need?

    “People skills!” says Daniels. “If you’re going to work in a field that is interpreting for people, with people, and around people, you need to be able to actively listen, be respectful, professional, caring, etc. [Interpreters should also] be able to assess the interpreting conversation as it’s going to adapt the language to fit [the] customer’s needs.”

    Although fluency is definitely necessary, interpreters also need to know how to switch between languages quickly, how to convey implied meaning in addition to literal meaning, and the principles and ethics behind interpretation.

American Sign Language Scholarships

Scholarship opportunities specific to American Sign Language programs are unfortunately not as common as other scholarships. The majority of those available are offered through the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf so members can continue their education or fund certification exam fees. Schools and programs may also have in-house scholarships available to current and future students, such as the Austin Community College scholarship listed here.


  • American Deafness and Rehabilitation Association ADARA is a professional organization for those who work with Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals. The organization’s primary goals include networking opportunities for members and inclusivity/accessibility.
  • American Translators Association ATA is a professional organization for interpreters and translators who work in nearly any language combination. The organization hosts conferences and provides resources and networking opportunities for members.
  • The ASL App This free app, created by members of the Deaf community, is a user-friendly tool for learning and practicing conversational ASL. Over 1,000 phrases and words/signs are included.
  • ASL Pro Dictionaries This free resource, geared towards ASL teachers, includes quizzes as well as three helpful dictionaries (a standard dictionary, a dictionary of religious terms and phrases, and a phrase-specific dictionary).
  • ASL University This website was created by the instructor of a college-level introductory ASL class. It includes a wide range of tools, quizzes, and dictionaries.
  • Critical Link International Critical Link is an organization for and by interpreters of all languages. It focuses primarily on the role of interpreters in international contexts and is actively involved in current politics and social issues, such as the recent refugee crisis.
  • Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre The Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre is an organization that promotes linguistic and cultural communication between the Deaf and hearing communities.
  • Deaf Interpreter Institute The DII’s website is unfortunately defunct because its federal funding ended, but its informational archives and resources (last updated in 2016) remain available.
  • Deaf Library Deaf Library contains a multitude of resources about Deaf communities and cultures in the United States and Japan. This website was created and is maintained by Karen Nakamura, professor of disability studies at University of California, Berkeley (previously, she taught at Yale University).
  • Deaf Studies Digital Journal Gallaudet University has four issues of its Deaf Studies Journal available for free online. The digital version of the journal includes academic articles about Deaf studies as well as art and literature by members of the Deaf community.
  • International Medical Interpreters Association (ASL Division) This organization offers networking opportunities and resources for medical interpreters. IMIA as a whole caters to all language interpreters, but there is a division specific to ASL interpreters in America.
  • Mano a Mano Mano a Mano is a nonprofit trilingual (English, Spanish, and ASL) organization that primarily serves deaf individuals in Spanish-speaking American communities. Mano a Mano also works with Puerto Rican dialects of English, Spanish, and ASL as well as with Latin American dialects of Spanish.
  • National Association of Interpreters in Education NAIE is a professional organization for interpreters who work with deaf students in educational settings. In addition to advocating for the educational needs of deaf students, NAIE also provides members with networking opportunities, resources, and hosts conferences; the website has an especially helpful resources section with links to dozens of organizations, journals, and other tools.
  • National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators NAJIT is a professional organization for interpreters and translators who work within legal fields. The organization has members who work with a wide range of languages, including ASL.
  • National Consortium of Interpreter Educational Centers Like its affiliated organization, the Deaf Interpreter Institute, the NCIEC’s website is no longer actively maintained due to a loss of federal funding. However, its resources, tools, and information (last updated in 2016) are still available.
  • Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf RID is the primary professional organization for ASL interpreters. This organization works to maintain high standards within the field while also providing resources, scholarships, and networking opportunities to members.
  • Signing Savvy This website is an extensive dictionary with thousands of videos that beginning and experienced signers alike can learn from.
  • World Association of Sign Language Interpreters This organization supports the World Federation of the Deaf and advances the needs of deaf individuals, Deaf communities, and sign language interpreters across the world.

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Whether you’re looking to earn your online degree or you’re a parent looking for answers, you can find all of your questions covered here. Explore these resources to help you make informed decisions and prepare for whatever is thrown your way.

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