Many languages can be difficult to learn, and may be even more confusing when regional accents enter the mix. There is one language, however, that requires no sound at all, and because of that fact, it is a tremendously versatile and accessible method of communication. American Sign Language (ASL) is one of the best resources available for those afflicted with deafness and those with whom they communicate.
The History of Sign Language
The origins of sign language may be traced back as far as the 5th century B.C.E. It developed freely around the world, though most recorded proof of sign language has been found in 17th century Europe. Different groups of people had their own understood methods of communication through hand signs, such as the development of British Sign Language (BSL) by Thomas Braidwood. ASL, however, actually grew from a merger between two different countries.
In the 1700s, there was a high level of hereditary deafness in the community of Martha’s Vineyard. To better communicate, residents developed a rudimentary sign language that was used by deaf and hearing people alike. Unfortunately, this creative resource was restricted to the island, and no formalized training or resource yet existed for those who became deaf through sickness or injury. That all changed when, in the early 1800s, young Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet befriended and began working with his neighbors, the Cogswell family, to help develop a way to educate their nine year-old daughter, Alice, who had become deaf as a result of spotted fever. Her father, Dr. Mason Fitch Cogswell, agreed, together with Gallaudet, that there desperately needed to be a system for the education of the deaf.
Gallaudet travelled to Europe to research existing systems for the deaf, and in London, he came across the French abbé and instructor Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard, who invited Gallaudet to visit the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris (INJS), a school for the deaf founded by Charles Michel de l’Epée. Due to rapidly decreasing funds, he was unable to stay for very long, and so brought one of Sicard’s students, Laurent Clerc, back to the United States. The two exchanged information, tutoring one another in French Sign Language (LSF) and written English, and began raising money for the new school. The doors to the American Asylum for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons opened on April 15, 1817, with Alice Cogswell as the first student.
Clerc used the basics of LSF for teaching, but he soon noticed that his students, many of them from Martha’s Vineyard, were altering the signs or using the Martha’s Vineyard system. This new fusion of LSF and the Martha’s Vineyard system became known as ASL, and quickly spread outside the classroom for use in daily life and in the home. To this day, ASL shares many similarities with LSF and is largely incompatible with BSL.
The Linguistics of ASL
Complete proficiency in ASL is measured by a series of four levels, or courses, which the student must complete in order:
- Level 1 addresses the basics of ASL, such as essential vocabulary, finger-spelling (the process of forming words through signing individual letters with your hands), and basic grammar.
- Level 2 expands on that learning with focus on more complex sentences and ideas to communicate.
- Level 3 is where ASL vocabulary balloons into a much wider selection. Students will be able to tell short stories entirely in ASL, and how to provide emphasis to certain words.
- Level 4 focuses on the further expansion of working vocabulary and ease with conversational communication.
ASL does not follow traditional English grammar rules, and the meaning of many words change, according to an additional movement or their location within a sentence. The location of the sign with respect to the body is also critical for comprehension. For example, the words “girl” and “remember” have the same hand sign, but are performed in a different location in space.
Alphabet & Numbers
In ASL, the letters of the alphabet are represented by different hand signs, which may be formed with only one hand. Only two letters, J and Z, require any sort of movement. There are actually only 22 different signs for the alphabet – the complete 26-letter set is achieved when signs are placed differently in the air or, as with J and Z, accompanied by a certain motion. Fingerspelling, or the process of forming words with these alphabet hand signs, is frequently used to clarify names, brands, or different members of a larger group (such as “daffodil” rather than “flower”). The same holds true for numbers, which consist of ten different hand signs, all of which can be made with one hand.
ASL Sentence Formation
As mentioned before, the syntax of ASL differs from regular English in that sentence structure begins with the subject, followed by a predicate. Words like “is” and “am” are frequently substituted with a nod of the head, to allow for efficiency of communication. For longer sentences, it is also acceptable to put a direct object either after the verb or before the subject, according to your preference. Indirect objects are placed after the subject, and followed up with the action of the sentence. Sentence structure can be difficult to master, but ASL as a language is quite flexible, and the more frequently you practice, the better you’ll become.
To become an ASL interpreter, you must first be proficient in ASL itself. This is usually achieved by means of a course, whether on a campus or online. Many courses emphasize in-person practice with another ASL signer, to assist with practice. Due to the demands of an interpreter’s job, it is generally desirable to have as large a vocabulary as possible. To become an official interpreter once skilled in ASL, there is an exam provided by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. The exam is rigorous, but once passed, the student earns a National Interpreter Certification (NIC), with which they may begin working as an ASL interpreter.
Phrasing in ASL relies on the magnification or exaggeration of certain words. For example, to convey the phrase “very happy”, a signer might use the hand signal for “happy” and modify it with a more exaggerated movement and a pause during the first portion of the hand signal. Adverbs in ASL may be produced this way, by adding simple inflection on existing words. Facial expressions also play a key role in providing a tone for the communication. Human facial expressions are universal, and it is difficult to mistake the disgust of a stained shirt when the hand signs are accompanied by a grimace.
ASL is a remarkably versatile language, and quite fun to learn. For more information on ASL, its structure, and how to learn it, please feel free to review the additional resources below.
Life Print – ASLU
American Sign Language Browser
Signing Savvy Online Dictionary
History of Sign Language
Sign Language Linguistics
American Sign Language Alphabet & Number Chart
History of American Sign Language
Deaf Culture – Sentence Structure
Master American Sign Language
Is Sign Language the Same All Over the World?
American Sign Language Alphabet Practice
ASL Grammar & Basic Linguistics