American Sign Language (ASL) is the principal language of the signing deaf community in the United States. There are estimated to be as many as 500,000 ASL signers, making it one of the most frequently used languages in North America. ASL, however, is only one of many sign languages used by deaf people around the world; deaf people in most countries have their own distinct sign language.
ASL has not always enjoyed such widespread popularity. Educational opportunities for deaf children were practically nonexistent in postcolonial America, and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787–1851) sought to remedy this situation. Nearly 200 years ago, Gallaudet set out to learn how Europeans taught deaf children. He was impressed by a school for deaf students in Paris, an institution that included instruction in sign in its educational program. Gallaudet persuaded a deaf teacher at this Paris school, Laurent Clerc, to return with him to America. In 1817, Gallaudet and Clerc helped found the first U.S. public school for deaf students. Clerc relied on his fluency in French Sign Language for both teaching and program development—which probably accounts for the considerable similarity between American and French Sign Language signs. (According to recent linguistic analyses, 60% of ASL signs are clearly related to corresponding signs in the French system.) Signs from some of the indigenous sign communication systems that were present in America also contributed to the emerging ASL lexicon. And, inasmuch as ASL is a living language, it continues to add new vocabulary items.
Until recently, linguists did not consider ASL a true language. Largely because of the pioneering research of William Stokoe (1919–2000), there has been a dramatic turnaround. Stokoe demonstrated that ASL signs have a distinct linguistic structure. More specifically, he identified three formational aspects that differentiated one ASL sign from another: handshape (the configuration and orientation of one or both hands); location (where on or near the body the sign is made); and movement (changes in hand and arm position needed to form the sign). He also observed that the various sign handshapes, locations, and movements functioned in a manner similar to that of phonemes in spoken languages. Today, most language experts recognize ASL to be a genuine language with a rich vocabulary and a rule-governed grammar.
Unlike many spoken languages that rely on word inflection, intonation, and order to generate variations in meaning, ASL uses changes in sign size, speed, repetition, and spatial location to help convey meaning. With some ASL verbs, for example, the direction of a sign’s movement determines who does what to whom and where the action takes place. Signers also take advantage of eye movements, facial expressions, and body postures to transmit meaning. By making optimal use of both gestural and visual modes, ASL signers can communicate complex ideas quickly and with the same precision as those who speak.
ASL also differs from spoken languages in how it is transmitted. For those deaf children with deaf parents, ASL is acquired from their parents in much the same way hearing children learn to speak— through spontaneous communication at home. For the more than 90% of deaf children who have hearing parents, however, language acquisition often takes a different form. Historically, these deaf youngsters typically learned to sign and to refine their sign skills through interaction with ASL-using peers while at residential schools for deaf students. But this process appears to be changing: fewer deaf children today are attending residential schools, and more hearing parents and teachers are learning to sign. Finally, regardless of how it is acquired, it should be evident that in learning ASL, children are mastering a rich language capable of conveying a wide variety of meanings quickly and accurately.
- Baker, , & Cokely, D. (1980). American Sign Language: A teacher’s resource text on grammar and culture. Silver Spring, MD: TJ Publishers.
- Sign Writing, http://www.signwriting.org/
- Wilbur, B. (1987). American Sign Language: Linguistic and applied dimensions (2nd ed.). Boston: College-Hill Press.