What is American Sign Language? American Sign Language (ASL) is a complete, complex language that employs signs made by moving the hands combined with facial expressions and postures of the body. It is the primary language of many North Americans who are D/deaf and is one of several communication options used by people who are D/deaf or hard-of-hearing.
Is sign language the same in other countries? No one form of sign language is universal. Different sign languages are used in different countries or regions. For example, British Sign Language (BSL) is a different language from ASL, and Americans who know ASL may not understand BSL.
Where did ASL originate? The exact beginnings of ASL are not clear, but some suggest that it arose more than 200 years ago from the intermixing of local sign languages and French Sign Language (LSF, or Langue des Signes Française).
Today’s ASL includes some elements of LSF plus the original local sign languages, which over the years have melded and changed into a rich, complex, and mature language. Modern ASL and modern LSF are distinct languages and, while they still contain some similar signs, can no longer be understood by each other’s users.
How does ASL compare with spoken language? The letters of the alphabet in American Sign Language.In spoken language, words are produced by using the mouth and voice to make sounds. But for people who are deaf (particularly those who are profoundly deaf), the sounds of speech are often not heard, and only a fraction of speech sounds can be seen on the lips. Sign languages are based on the idea that vision is the most useful tool a deaf person has to communicate and receive information. ASL is a language completely separate and distinct from English. It contains all the fundamental features of language—it has its own rules for pronunciation, word order, and complex grammar. While every language has ways of signaling different functions, such as asking a question rather than making a statement, languages differ in how this is done. For example, English speakers ask a question by raising the pitch of their voice; ASL users ask a question by raising their eyebrows, widening their eyes, and tilting their bodies forward. Just as with other languages, specific ways of expressing ideas in ASL vary as much as ASL users do. In addition to individual differences in expression, ASL has regional accents and dialects. Just as certain English words are spoken differently in different parts of the country, ASL has regional variations in the rhythm of signing, form, and pronunciation. Ethnicity and age are a few more factors that affect ASL usage and contribute to its variety.
How do most children learn ASL? Parents are often the source of a child’s early acquisition of language, but for children who are deaf, additional people may be models for language acquisition. A deaf child born to parents who are Deaf and who already use ASL will begin to acquire ASL as naturally as a hearing child picks up spoken language from hearing parents. However, for a deaf child with hearing parents who have no prior experience with ASL, language may be acquired differently. In fact, 9 out of 10 children who are born deaf are born to parents who hear. Some hearing parents choose to introduce sign language to their deaf children. Hearing parents who choose to learn sign language often learn it along with their child. Surprisingly, children who are deaf can learn to sign quite fluently from their parents, even when their parents might not be perfectly fluent themselves.
Why emphasize early language learning? Parents should introduce a child who is deaf or hard-of-hearing to language as soon as possible. The earlier any child is exposed to and begins to acquire language, the better that child’s communication skills will become. Research suggests that the first few years of life are the most crucial to a child’s development of language skills, and even the early months of life can be important for establishing successful communication. Thanks to screening programs in place at almost all hospitals in the United States and its territories, newborn babies are tested for hearing before they leave the hospital. If a baby has hearing loss, this screening gives parents an opportunity to learn about communication options. Parents can then start their child’s language learning process during this important early stage of development. For more information, see Communication Considerations for Parents of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children.