Sign Language Series: American Sign Language (ASL)

Here’s something that I have thought of trying so that we can become a little more educated about the deaf world we live in. Most of us have exposure to several languages in the hearing world through family and social connections, and even have an idea how to speak it at a very basic level. What about sign languages? I only know one, so I thought to do some research and try to post some basic information about the languages as I learn about them, and hopefully, I’ll find videos (no problem for ASL and British Sign Language (BSL), but for the other lessor-known languages, who knows?). Here goes!

I want to start with ASL because there will be people who are just starting to deal with hearing loss and want to get a little bit of information about the history and basis of ASL. Below will be links to texts and videos so you can read more in-depth about them and maybe even see what they look like.

ASL, like all other sign languages in the Deaf world, is a language where we use our hands, facial expressions, and body language to convey meaning. Keep in mind that ASL is NOT based on English, but French. It has phonology, morphology, and syntax, the things we need in a language. It is used by roughly 500,000 to 2 million signers in the United States, depending on who you ask, and known by many more people (interpreters, teachers, partners and spouses of deaf people, etc.). It is mainly used in North America and Western Africa, with some limited use in South America and Southeast Asia.

It was brought in part to the United States in the 19th century by Laurent Clerc, an assistant at a school in France, as French Sign Language. Before this, there were several sign languages in use around New England, and students using them ultimately brought Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) as their background in signing into the school for the deaf at American School for the Deaf (ASD). Both parts played roles in ASL’s development in 200 years of use. However, it wasn’t until the late 1950s/early 1960s before ASL started to become recognized as a language in its own right, which led to the manualism movement in the 1960s, which advocated the use of sign language in deaf education. In my experience, it wasn’t until about the mid-1980s before it really became more widespread and even available as a foreign language in colleges (it still wasn’t available to me in colleges in Texas until later).

Here are a few details to get started without bogging you down here. There are four parts of each sign we have to take in consideration, such as orientation of the hand (inward or outward), position relative to the body (head or face, chest, or out front), the handshape, and the direction the sign is moving in. Another aspect of signing is how you physically position all the people involved in the conversation, as in “you, me, they, we, etc.” Pointing at people is considered fine, and in fact, necessary to make meaning clear.

Fingerspelling is done with one hand and best worked out slowly by learning to say the word rather than the individual letters as you spell them. It comes in handy when your vocabulary is still sparse and/or some people don’t recognize your signs because of dialectal differences. This is some of the basics to get you started.

One Response to Sign Language Series: American Sign Language (ASL)

  1. Margaret October 2, 2015 at 1:55 am #

    I just want to add something to this…. searevl of my daycare kids were taught sign language. And it only causes frustration when the daycare provider (me) doesn’t know the signs or which signs are being taught.It’s also frustrating as they get to talking age and they are still signing…. because in a room of 7 kids, I need them to speak up. A few of the kids wouldn’t start talking, they would only keep signing. I’ve always thought this was a great way to keep a baby from screaming. And it can work, as long as the primary caregiver knows the signs as well.

Leave a Reply