American Sign Language

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American sign language


ASL is an autonomous linguistic system independent of English. It is a visual/spatial/gestural language that is very expressive and dependent on visual cues of the hands, body and face. ASL contains all the features that are part of a unique communication system: it is symbolic and systematic; it has its own morphology and syntax; and there is a community of users of ASL. ASL is understood to be the "natural" language of deaf people, especially those who are second or third generation deaf. In large part because of its visual and spatial nature, there is no standardized written form of ASL.


In its most basic form ASL originated in the United States in the late 1700s. Over the next two centuries it was transformed into a true language that has been taught to many deaf people. Laurent Clerc and Thomas Gallaudet adapted approximately 60% of Abbe de l'Epee's French Sign Language (FSL) to conform to American customs and manners and incorporated the basic ASL already in use in 1817. Clerc and Gallaudet also opened the American Asylum, the first school for the deaf in North America based on the goal of teaching ASL. Over the centuries the topic of teaching ASL has been quite controversial, with some believing that it should not be taught to deaf children. For example, influential people such as Alexander Graham Bell stressed the importance of oral communication in children who are deaf. Others, however, such as E.M. Gallaudet (nephew of Tomas Gallaudet) were strong proponents of the continued teaching of ASL. From this support of ASL, a deaf community and culture evolved across North America where approximately 2 million members of the deaf community share in the use of this language.

Linguistic structure

Like all other languages, ASL uses arbitrary symbols as its "words." Word order (syntax) of ASL varies according to emphasis, giving the user many expressive possibilities. Information about nouns, subjects or objects, is incorporated into directional verbs by the use of classifiers, and facial/bodily expressions are used as grammatical markers. The syntax of ASL is more closely related to the Navajo language than to the syntax of English. The small meaning units of ASL (its morphology), such as past tense or plural markers, are different from other languages. ASL does not provide tense marking for each verb in a sentence; rather the tense is marked at the beginning of the conversation and requires no further marking.

Acquisition of ASL

DEAF CHILDREN OF DEAF PARENTS. Only 10% of all deaf children are born to deaf parents, and these children are clearly a minority in the deaf population. However these children have a linguistic advantage over deaf children of hearing parents. Deaf children of deaf parents have an accessible language available to them from an early age. Consequently, they develop language at about the same rate as their hearing counterparts. Deaf parents often sign in front of their deaf infants and may often enlarge their children's signs just as hearing parents elongate spoken words in "baby talk." When ASL is acquired first and speech second by these children it is called bilingual acquisition.

DEAF CHILDREN OF HEARING PARENTS. Deaf children of hearing parents typically begin language acquisition later as a result of parents not knowing that their child is deaf, often until the child is two to four years old. Therefore, a manual form of language is not used in front of the infant, nor is the child receiving another type of effective communication training, because the infant cannot hear information presented orally. After diagnosis, some of these children may eventually first learn a manual coding of English in the home along with speech. This type of bilingualism is known as bimodal presentation and acquisition. Other deaf children of hearing parents begin to learn ASL soon after diagnosis and learn the language quickly when they are in an environment promoting the use of ASL.

ASL and deaf culture

Deaf culture is "a social, communal, and creative force of, by and for deaf people based on American Sign Language." Deaf culture, however, is not restricted to deaf people; families, friends and advocates of the deaf community may also be a part of deaf culture. Deaf/ASL culture arose during the civil-rights era in the 1960's. It involves deaf people partaking in "visual literature" (for example, ASL poetry, plays, story telling, or humor) as well as, sports and many other physical and visual activities. As a result, the psychosocial basis of deaf culture is understood to mean that deaf people, especially those attending residential schools, regardless of mode of communication taught in the school, will seek out other deaf people and use sign language as a primary mode of communication.

ASL and education

Across North America the majority of deaf children attend public schools. Some of these children may rely on lip reading and other people as note takers, while others may have an ASL interpreter in the classroom. A significant minority of deaf children attend residential schools where communication philosophies vary. Some promote the use of sign language (most often signed English, and fewer, ASL) while others may promote oral communication. However, most children attending residential schools do learn ASL, often from their peers, rather than, or in addition to, their teachers. It is important to note that for deaf children, ASL, as well as signed English, appear to serve, equally well, the same roles in thinking as spoken language does for hearing children.

Implications in healthcare

In the last decade advocates in both the United States and Canada have been promoting better laws that provide ways for deaf people to access health care services more easily in hospitals and government settings. Currently hospitals in the United States are required to provide Tele-Type (TTY) telephone machines that allow deaf patients to make calls, as well as to provide ASL interpreters upon request. Further, the rights of the deaf patient are promoted by hospital regulations that demand that all efforts are to be taken to ensure communication between patients and staff and that the needs of the deaf patient are being met. The above have yet to become laws in Canada. However, efforts are made to provide TTYs and interpreters for Canadian deaf patients. Advocates for the Canadian deaf community continue to push for the implementation of the same laws that protect the American deaf community.



Bochner, J.H. & Albertini, J.A. "Language varieties in the deaf population and their acquisition by children and adults." In Language Learning and Deafness. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Moore, M.S. & Levitan, L. For Hearing People Only: Answers to Some of the Most Commonly Asked Questions About the Deaf Community, its Culture, and the "Deaf Reality." Rochester, New York: MSM Productions Ltd., 1992.

Valli, C. & Lucas, C. Linguistics of American Sign Language. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 1992.

Wilbur, R. "Linguistic: The Linguistic Description of American Sign Language." In Recent Perspectives on American Sign Language. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers, 1980.

Timothy E. Moore

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American Sign Language

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American Sign Language