WHAT IS AMERICAN SIGN LANGUAGE?
The easiest answer to this seemingly simple question is that ASL stands for "American Sign Language" and is the native language for approximately 500,000 deaf individuals in the United States and Canada. But that doesn’t explain it well enough. Many people mistakenly believe that American Sign Language is “English on the hands.” Some think it’s a manual code of English or that there is one universal sign language used by deaf people around the world. These beliefs are simply not true.
ASL is comparable in its complexity and expressiveness to spoken languages. It is not a form of English. It has its own distinct grammatical structure, which must be mastered in the same way as the grammar of any other foreign language. ASL differs from spoken languages in that it is visual rather than auditory and it is composed of precise handshapes and movements. Important to understand is the fact that ASL is a complete language and can convey any idea: abstract, subtle or complex. Many people mistakenly believe that ASL is only capable of expressing the most basic of ideas. Not true!
Sign language is no more universal than spoken languages. American Sign Language is the language used by a majority of the Deaf community in the United States and most of Canada (LSQ is used in Quebec). Certain Caribbean countries and areas of Mexico also use ASL. England uses British Sign Language, Japan uses Japanese Sign Language, Australia uses Australian Sign Language, and so on. Because of historical circumstances, contemporary ASL is more like French Sign Language than like British Sign Language.
ASL was developed by American Deaf people to communicate with each other and has existed as long as there have been Deaf Americans.
Deaf people regard ASL as their natural language, which reflects their cultural values and keeps their traditions and heritage alive. However, not all deaf people use American Sign Language. In fact, not all deaf people sign! Those who do, use a variety of different sign systems, which are discussed here. For now, just know that not all deaf people use American Sign Language and that it’s not imperative that you learn the actual language of ASL to communicate with deaf and hard of hearing (HOH) people. This site will help you decide which route is better to take in order to reach the destination you desire.
For a brief history of ASL, click here!
Why do you want to learn Sign Language?
An important thing to consider before you take the plunge into the language of signs is why you want to learn. The reason for this is that some people feel they must learn true ASL in order to communicate with the deaf and HOH population. This is not entirely true.
As stated earlier, not all deaf people who sign use ASL. True, ASL is a beautiful language and I encourage everyone to appreciate it. It i,s in fact, a foreign language that would take about the same amount of time to learn as, say, Japanese. So many people go to their first ASL class expecting to be able to sign immediately. Unfortunately, all too many instructors of sign supply these students with ample reason to maintain this belief. What the student may not realize is that they may not be learning true ASL.
ASL has it’s own grammar and syntax. If your sign teacher is speaking and signing at the same time, she cannot be signing true ASL. In fact, if your sign teacher is speaking and signing (or, even worse, speaking only), and you’re dead set on learning strict ASL with no in-between whatsoever, you’re in the wrong class. However, if you’re wanting to learn to sign because you simply want to communicate with deaf and HOH people in a social atmosphere, or because you feel the language is beautiful, then learning true ASL is not a requirement. At least not at first. You can, in fact, learn a type of Pidgin Sign English (PSE, now called Contact Sign) and find communication fulfilling and enjoyable. In all actuality, most Deaf individuals, when encountering a hearing person, will automatically code switch to Contact Sign whether you want them to or not. Why do we do this? Most likely because we’re trying to help and make communication easier, but also probably because some Deaf people feel ASL belongs to the Deaf and don’t think it’s appropriate for hearing people, as well as the most important reason: some deaf people don’t even know ASL.
There are over 28 million deaf and HOH individuals in the United States. Of those who speak ASL as a native language, there’s approximately one half million. The rest, if they use sign language, probably learned it in a residential school, in college, as an adult when they were free to do what they wanted, and, of course, as an adult because that’s when they became deaf. So many people picture deaf people in the familiar stereotype: doesn’t speak, signs fluently in ASL, was born deaf or became deaf as a young child, wears hearing aids, and so on. That is a small group of people in the deaf population. Of the millions of deaf people in America, the largest group is that of late deafened adults (LDA). This is a broad term and is often used for describing post-vocational deafness, or deafness after the age of 18, but can be used for anyone who became deaf after the acquisition of language. However, many LDAs do not embrace their deafness and some refuse to learn sign language, depending only on their residual hearing, lipreading, and the use of hearing aids and cochlear implants. Even of the LDAs who do become fluent in sign language, most do not use strict ASL. However, Deaf (capital “D”), deaf (lowercase “d”), hard of hearing, late deafened: none of these terms can be generalized. How to address someone who falls into one of these categories is to simply address them as you would a hearing person (by their name). But if you need to use a word to describe their hearing status, it really is their decision for what they prefer to refer to themselves. It’s a feeling and an identity. This is covered more on the Deaf Culture / Community page under the sections on Big “D” Little “d” and terminology not to use.
The bottom line is if you want to work as an interpreter or in the field of deafness in any way, American Sign Language is what you will need to know. However, if your motives are anything but professional or just the fact that you want to learn the language, there’s no reason to force yourself only to use strict ASL. Consider learning Contact Sign and then moving to ASL at your own speed. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pro-ASL, but I’m also knowledgeable that many people feel like they’re “in over their head” in an ASL class, when their intentions are pure and simple: communication.
How long does it take to become fluent in Japanese? Russian? Language fluency, be it spoken or visual, requires time, study, immersion in the language community, and constant practice. After taking three classes, you may be able to handle communication of simple concepts of daily life. To be comfortably fluent in native conversations at normal rates, discussing complex topics, you should expect it to take years.
The National Institute on Deafness & Other Communication Disorders has more ASL information here.
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