American Sign Language: What You Need To Know And Why It's Unique (2022)

American Sign Language: What You Need To Know And Why It's Unique (1)

Today I'm delighted to feature a guest post from Kristine about American Sign Language (ASL).

You'll learn about:

  • What ASL is and how it developed
  • 5 common misconceptions people have about ASL
  • Some similarities between ASL and English
  • How learning ASL is different from learning English

Here's Kristine…

What Is American Sign Language (ASL)?

ASL, short for American Sign Language, is the sign language most commonly used in, you guessed it, the United States and Canada.

Approximately 250,000 – 500,000 people of all ages throughout the US and Canada use this language to communicate as their native language. ASL is the third most commonly used language in the United States, after English and Spanish.

Contrary to popular belief, ASL is not representative of English nor is it some sort of imitation of spoken English that you and I use on a day-to-day basis. For many, it will come as a great surprise that ASL has more similarities to spoken Japanese and Navajo than to English.

When we discuss ASL or any other type of sign language, we are referring to what is called a visual-gestural language. The “visual” component refers to the use of body movements versus sound.

Because “listeners” must use their eyes to “receive” the information, this language was specifically created to be easily recognized by the eyes. The “gestural” component refers to the body movements or “signs” that are performed to convey a message.

A Brief History Of ASLAmerican Sign Language: What You Need To Know And Why It's Unique (2)

ASL is a relatively new language, which first appeared in the 1800s with the founding of the first successful American School for the Deaf by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.

With strong roots in French Sign Language, ASL evolved to incorporate the signs students would use in less formal occasions such as in their home or within the deaf community.

As students graduated from the American School for the Deaf, some went on to open up their own schools, passing along this evolving American Sign Language as the contact language for the deaf in the United States.

Is There A Universal Sign Language?

There is no universal language for the deaf – all over the world, different sign languages have developed that vary from one another.

A spoken English speaker from the USA, for example, can generally understand someone from another English speaking nation such as England or Australia.

But with sign language, someone who signs using American Sign language would not be able to understand someone who signs using British Sign Language (BSL) or even Australian Auslan.

5 Common Misconceptions About ASL

Like any foreign language, ASL falls victim to many misconceptions among those who have not explored the language.

(Video) 25 ASL Signs You Need to Know | ASL Basics | American Sign Language for Beginners

Because of the word ‘American' in its name, many assume it shares the same qualities as English and is simply a representation of English using hands and gestures.

However, this is not the case. Let's take a look at 5 of the most common misconceptions about ASL:

Misconception #1: ASL Is “English On The Hands”

As you've probably realised by now, ASL actually has little in common with spoken English, nor is it some sort of signed representation of English words.

ASL was formed independently of English and has its own unique sentence structure and symbols for various words and ideas.

The key features of ASL are:

  • hand shape
  • palm orientation
  • hand movement
  • hand location
  • gestural features like facial expression and posture

When English is used through fingerspelling, hand motions represent the English alphabet to spell words in English, but this is not actually a part of ASL. Rather, it's a separate element of signed communication.

Misconception #2: ASL Is Shorthand

Another common misconception about ASL is that it is some form of shorthand, or rapid communication by means of abbreviations and symbols.

This misconception arises due to the fact that ASL does not have a written component.

To call ASL shorthand is sorely incorrect, as ASL is a complex language system with its own set of linguistic components.

Misconception #3: ASL Is Most Like British Sign Language

Although the United States and the United Kingdom share spoken English as their predominant language, American Sign Language and British Sign Language vary greatly.

In fact, American Sign Language has its roots in French Sign Language, while British Sign Language has had a greater influence on the development of Australian Auslan and New Zealand Sign Language.

Misconception #4: ASL Is Finger Spelling

In ASL, fingerspelling is reserved for borrowing words from the English language for proper nouns and technical terms with no ASL equivalent.

For example, fingerspelling can be used for people's names, places, titles, and brands.

When fingerspelling is used in ASL, it's done using the American Fingerspelled Alphabet. This alphabet has 22 handshapes, that, when held in certain positions or movements represent the 26 letters of the English alphabet.

Misconception #5: Lip Reading Is An Effective Alternative To Learning Sign LanguageAmerican Sign Language: What You Need To Know And Why It's Unique (3)

It's estimated that only 30% of English can be read on the lips by the deaf.

(Video) A Few Things to Know About American Sign Language | NPR

Lip reading is also not an effective because it's a one-way method of communication.

It's very unlikely that the speaker will be nearly as skilled at lip reading as those who are fluent in ASL, as learning to lip read well can take years upon years of practice.

This means that lip reading is not an effective method for two-way communication.

How Is Learning ASL Similar To Learning English?

Now that we've cleared up some of the misconceptions about ASL, let's look at some of the similarities that ASL and English do share:

Both English And ASL Are Natural LanguagesAmerican Sign Language: What You Need To Know And Why It's Unique (4)

Both ASL and English are defined as “natural languages” meaning they were created and spread through people using them, without conscious planning or premeditation.

Artificial languages, on the other hand, are communication systems which have been consciously created or invented and do not develop and change naturally.

Some artificial systems that were invented for deaf children include:

  • lip reading
  • cued speech
  • signed English
  • manually coded English.

With any natural language, immersion is the surest way to ensure fluency and American Sign Language is no different.

This means surrounding yourself with the ASL/Deaf community to help expose yourself to the context, culture, behaviours, and grammatical rules of the language.

Both ASL And English Activate The Same Area Of The Brain

When an ASL signer sees and processes an ASL sentence, the same part of the brain – the left hemisphere – is activated as when an English speaker listens to or reads an English sentence.

This is because even though language exists in different forms, all of them are based on symbolic representation. These symbols can visual or aural but they are still processed in the same part of the brain.

Both Require Building Words To Form Sentences

Signed languages have similar grammatical characteristics as spoken languages.

Just as sounds are linked to form syllables and words in a spoken language, signs can be built through various gestures and hand shapes, positions, and movements.

ASL has the same basic set of word types as spoken English does, including nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, and adverbs.

How Is Learning ASL Different To Learning English?American Sign Language: What You Need To Know And Why It's Unique (5)

In this article, I've compared many of the similarities between ASL and English, but how do the two differ for those trying to learn them?

(Video) Top 10 ASL Beginner Signs | You need to know | American Sign Language

Visual Language vs. Auditory Language

The first and most obvious difference between learning ASL and English is the medium you use for your learning – your eyes or your ears.

This may help to make ASL easier for people who are visual learners.

Similarly, if you are more of an auditory learner, you will probably find learning English or other spoken languages easier to pick up than sign language.

ASL Requires Gestural Movements Never Used In Spoken Language

Learning how to communicate through ASL and other sign languages requires a movement of body parts that most spoken-language speakers may not be used to.

These gestures include hand, arm, eye, and even facial expressions.

Just like the sounds of a new spoken language can take some getting used to for beginners, these gestures can be challenging for new learners of sign language to pick up.

ASL Is More Conceptual Than Spoken Languages

When making a connection between a sign and its intended meaning in ASL, it can be easier to comprehend the word’s meaning than in a spoken language.

For example, in ASL, the word “book” is signed with both hands gesturing the opening of a book.

The word “book” in English, however, does not conjure such an image. You either know what it means or you don't and it's hard to guess if you're not sure.

Not all signs look like what they”re representing, but these conceptual connections are definitely more common than in spoken language.

ASL, because it's visual, is a deeply conceptual language.

Because of this, the object of the sentence is signed first. For example, the English statement “The boy skipped home” would be reordered in ASL, starting with ‘home' and then introducing the boy skipping.

ASL Has A Different Word Order Than English

As an English-speaker learning ASL, you may find the word order a bit tricky to get used to.

In ASL, how you assemble sentences following a different pattern, based on content.

When using indirect objects in ASL, you place the object right after the subject and then show the action. Let’s look at an example:

(Video) Why Students Should Learn American Sign Language | Breese Tierney | TEDxYouth@MBJH

  • English: The boy throws a frisbee
  • ASL: Boy — frisbee — throw

Tenses Are Represented Differently In ASL

In English, verbs are changed to show their tense, using the suffixes -ed, -ing and -s.

In ASL, tenses are shown differently.

Rather than conjugating the verbs, tense is established with a separate sign.

To represent the present tense, no change is made to the signs.

However, to sign past tense, you sign “finish” at chest level either before or after you finish your sentence.

Signing the future tense is quite similar to signing past tense. It's indicated with a sign either before or at the end of the sentence as well as by adding “will” at the end of the sentence.

One interesting difference in the future tense, however, is that how far away from your body you sign the word “will” indicates how far in the future the sentence is.

As you can see, learning ASL is quite similar to learning any natural language.

Are You Thinking Of Learning ASL?

Every language has its own set of rules and grammar and ASL is no different.

While these rules and grammar are different are quite different from what we're used to in English, they're not particularly difficult to learn.

Like any language, getting the hang of ASL simply requires lots of practice and determination. You just need to get started.

If you're currently thinking about learning a new language, you should consider giving ASL a try. I think you'll find that it's not only a fun and interesting language to learn but an incredibly enjoyable one too.

Are you interested in learning ASL or another form of sign language? Why do you want to learn sign language and what signs or topics do you most want to learn about? Let us know in the comments below!

This is a guest post by Kristine Thorndyke. Kristine is an English teacher who believes in improving lives through education. When she’s not teaching, you can find her creating helpful resources for standardized testing at Test Prep Nerds.

(Video) 20+ Basic Sign Language Phrases for Beginners | ASL


What makes ASL a unique language? ›

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, pronunciation, slang, and signs used.

Why do we need sign language * Your answer? ›

Sign languages are one of the most important, natural and accessible means of communication for the vast majority of Deaf and hard of hearing people.

What about knowing ASL is there any other unique ways it benefits your brain? ›

Learning sign language and any other foreign languages is good for the brain. It enhances cognition, and creative and abstract thinking. It even has the added benefit of improving hand and eye coordination. It exercises the peripheral vision, training you to become more aware of the environment.

What makes ASL different from other languages? ›

ASL has many ways of combining into a single sign complex meanings that can only be expressed with a sequence of words in English. This is one of the many differences between ASL grammar and English grammar. ASL does not lack grammar; it has a grammar of its own that is different from that of English.

What is unique language? ›

What's the most unique language in the world? Linguists all over the world believe it might be Pirahã, a language spoken by a tribe of about 350 people in the Amazon.

What are 5 interesting facts about sign language? ›

Five Interesting Facts Most People Don't Know About Sign Language
  • It's the fourth most used language in the UK. ...
  • Different countries have their own versions of sign language. ...
  • Sign language uses more than just hand gestures. ...
  • Many deaf people have 'name signs' ...
  • Sign language isn't as difficult to learn as it looks.
23 Sept 2021

What is sign language short answer? ›

Sign language is manual communication commonly used by people who are deaf. Sign language is not universal; people who are deaf from different countries speak different sign languages. The gestures or symbols in sign language are organized in a linguistic way. Each individual gesture is called a sign.

Why sign language is so important for all its speakers? ›

Helps you communicate with everyone

Learning the skill of sign language shows the deaf community that they are not being forgotten and that they have the same access to communication with the rest of the world as anyone else. After all, everyone has the right to be heard and express themselves.

What are important things to remember when learning ASL? ›

8 Essential Tips for Signing
  • Know the alphabet. When learning anything, it's essential to start with the basics. ...
  • Relax your hands. Some people claim that they "talk with their hands". ...
  • Be clear in your form. ...
  • Practice on camera. ...
  • Watch others. ...
  • Use facial expressions. ...
  • Take classes. ...
  • Practice everywhere!

When was ASL recognized as a unique language? ›

In 1960, something big happened. William Stokoe, a scholar and hearing professor at Gallaudet University, published a dissertation that proved ASL is a genuine language with a unique syntax and grammar.

What are some benefits of learning ASL? ›

Studying ASL promotes better awareness of and sensitivity to the deaf and hard of hearing community. As someone proficient in ASL, you will develop a strong appreciation for deaf culture, and you can promote understanding and acceptance of the language among others.

What are the five rules of ASL? ›

In American Sign Language (ASL), we use the 5 Parameters of ASL to describe how a sign behaves within the signer's space. The parameters are handshape, palm orientation, movement, location, and expression/non-manual signals.

How many ASL signs do you need to know to be fluent? ›

In total, there are 26 different ASL hand signs that you will need to master when learning American Sign Language. However, when we say that it can take just 60 to 90-hours to learn ASL, we only mean that this is the approximate amount of time it takes to memorize the ASL alphabet.

What are the two basic questions types in ASL? ›

Questions. There are two types of questions used in ASL–yes/no questions and wh-word questions.

What is considered rude to a deaf person? ›

Similarly, it is considered incredibly rude to grab a deaf person's hands while they are signing. In the deaf community, this is the equivalent of holding your hand over someone's mouth to prevent them from speaking.

What was ASL originally called? ›

ASL is thought to have originated in the American School for the Deaf (ASD), founded in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. Originally known as The American Asylum, At Hartford, For The Education And Instruction Of The Deaf And Dumb, the school was founded by the Yale graduate and divinity student Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.

Where is ASL used the most? ›

ASL, short for American Sign Language, is the sign language most commonly used by the Deaf and Hard of Hearing people in the United States. Approximately more than a half-million people throughout the US (1) use ASL to communicate as their native language.

What are 3 unique characteristics of language? ›

4.4: Features of Language
  • Duality of patterning: associates sounds with meaning. ...
  • Productivity: Symbols and rules can be combined for infinite messages. ...
  • Interchangeability: Speakers are able to send and receive messages.
  • Arbitrariness: No association with words, and its meaning except for the sounds.
26 Jun 2021

What is the most unique language? ›

1. Silbo Gomero. Spoken on the Spanish island of La Gomera, Silbo Gomero is a language that consists entirely of whistling. Originally developed to allow communication at distances of up to 5km through the mountainous island's valleys, Silbo Gomero is regular Spanish transposed into simplified, short whistling sounds.

Which language has the most unique words? ›

Counting the Words in the Dictionary
LanguageWords in the Dictionary
3 more rows
7 Mar 2018

What is the most important sign language? ›

American Sign language (ASL) is growing in popularity and its the primary language of the Deaf and Hard of hearing in the USA. Its popularity has also expanded to other countries around the world.

How effective is sign language? ›

Research shows that sign language speeds up speech development, reduces frustration in young children by giving them a means to express themselves before they know how to talk, increases parent-child bonding, and lets babies communicate vital information, such as if they are hurt or hungry.

What skills does sign language give you? ›

5 of the most powerful benefits of learning sign language
  • Stronger bond between parents and infants. ...
  • Improved spatial reasoning. ...
  • Enhanced ability to interpret body language. ...
  • Better reaction times and peripheral vision. ...
  • Long-term cognitive benefits of learning sign language.
19 Jan 2022

What are the 3 types of sign language? ›

Not a Universal Language

Interestingly, most countries that share the same spoken language do not necessarily have the same sign language as each other. English for example, has three varieties: American Sign Language (ASL), British Sign Language (BSL) and Australian Sign Language (Auslan).

What are the 4 parts of sign language? ›

The elements of a sign are Handshape (or Handform), Orientation (or Palm Orientation), Location (or Place of Articulation), Movement, and Non-manual markers (or Facial Expression), summarised in the acronym HOLME.

What are the 3 sign languages? ›

Along with BSL, there are several sign languages used by English-speaking countries, including the US (ASL), Auslan and NZSL.

What is the importance of sign? ›

Sign language is the bridge that connects us to the world of those who have an impaired hearing; or verbal ability. An array of gestures made using hands, fingers, arms, head and also facial expressions; which also helps the deaf and dump to communicate with the people around them and vice versa.

What are the limitations of sign language? ›

Sign language requires the use of hands to make gestures. This can be a problem for people who do not have full use of their hands. Even seemingly manageable disabilities such as Parkinson's or arthritis can be a major problem for people who must communicate using sign language.

Why is it important for teachers to learn sign language? ›

Teachers are constantly searching for new ways to engage their students in the learning process. Using sign language within the classroom is one solution to reach all learners. Sign language can enhance the learning process by bringing visual, auditory and kinesthetic feedback to help reach all students.

What is the most important of the 5 parameters in ASL? ›

The five parameters are handshape, palm orientation, location, movement, and non-manual signals. Knowing and accurately using the five parameters is crucial. Precision is incredibly important in ASL because it affects meaning and impacts comprehension.

When learning ASL does it matter what hand you use? ›

They discovered that in general right- and left-handed signers respond faster when they were watching a right-handed signer. However, left-handed signers responded more quickly to complex two-handed signs made by signers who 'led' with their left hand.

What is the first thing taught when learning ASL? ›

Sign Language Alphabet

Learning to sign the alphabet (known as the manual alphabet) is usually the first place to begin. Sign language alphabet: Each of the 26 letters in the English alphabet is represented with a unique sign in American Sign Language (ASL).

What are some common beliefs and attitudes in ASL deaf culture? ›

In Deaf culture, some of the shared values are:
  • Respect for Auslan. This is a core value, as explained above.
  • Deaf is normal. For culturally Deaf people, to be Deaf is a natural state of being. ...
  • Deaf babies are highly valued. For Deaf people, having a deaf baby is something to celebrate, not something to grieve over.
13 May 2022

Who was the first person to use ASL? ›

The first person credited with the creation of a formal sign language for the hearing impaired was Pedro Ponce de León, a 16th-century Spanish Benedictine monk.

Who was the first person who was deaf? ›

c. 44 B.C.: Quintus Pedius is the earliest deaf person in recorded history known by name.

Why is it important to learn about deaf people? ›

“Deaf culture is important because it allows individuals to be who they are,” O'Banion explained, “and live in a way that is unique to them. There's more to a person than whether or not they can hear, so don't just focus on their ears.”

What are the four strategies for learning ASL? ›

Strategies for Learning ASL
  • Focus on the signer's face, not on their hands!
  • Strategies for Learning.
  • Focus on meaning rather than individual signs.
  • Leave English, and your voice, outside the classroom!
  • Building a Langauge Community.
  • Show that you understand the signer.

Is ASL worth learning? ›

Knowing ASL gives you a way to build relationships with countless deaf people and a way to enjoy the richness of the Deaf community nationwide. Beyond communicating with deaf friends, ASL is also a surprisingly versatile language.

What are the 2 3 main word orders for ASL? ›

ASL Sentence Structure – Grammar Basic

In general, the word order follows a “Subject” + “Verb” + “Object” sentence structure. You will also see the structure “Time” + “Subject” + “Verb” + “Object”, or “Time” can be at the end of a sentence.

What words are not used in ASL? ›

In addition, ASL does not use the English words “and,” “or,” “the,” “of,” and “is” to convey information. Instead, these concepts are expressed through facial expressions, role shifting, and pointing.

What are the basic rules of language? ›

There are Five Levels of Linguistic Rules to be learned and applied to go from Deep Structure to Surface Structure.
  • Phonologic Rules.
  • Morphologic Rules.
  • Syntactic Rules.
  • Semantic Rules.
  • Pragmatic Rules.

What is the fastest way to learn ASL? ›

  1. Take a sign language class. ...
  2. Learn online by watching videos. ...
  3. Join a sign language group, deaf club or visit a deaf café ...
  4. Take an online course. ...
  5. Hire a private, qualified sign language tutor. ...
  6. Watch and mimic interpreters. ...
  7. Ask your Deaf friends and family teach you. ...
  8. Use an App.
1 Jun 2020

How many years does it take to become fluent in ASL? ›

Overall, it can take several years of regular study and practice to become fluent in sign language. It may take from three months to three years to learn sign language. Moreover, it's all about your learning goal setting, and it all depends on your end goal.

What is the hardest part about learning ASL? ›

One of the challenges people face when learning American sign language (ASL) is that it requires them to stop "thinking straight English" and rely on abstraction and other skills to communicate both dynamically and accurately.

What is the most common sentence type used in ASL? ›

A declarative sentence states a fact, it simply puts forth information. Declarative sentences are very common in both ASL and in English.

What is the most basic sentence structure in ASL? ›

The basic sentence structure of ASL is Subject-Verb-Object.

What makes ASL different from English? ›

Pragmatics. ASL can express meaning in ways that spoken English cannot since, unlike American English, which uses sound to produce a series of words, ASL uses signs produced by the movement of the hand or face.

Why is ASL a beautiful language? ›

It's beautiful, elegant and expressive. The benefits are countless and just as easy to learn as any other language! - Whether you may Deaf/Hard of Hearing or hearing, it elevates your life and makes you a better communicator in all possible aspects. Simply put, no words can do sign language justice.

What makes deaf culture unique? ›

What is Deaf Culture? The American Deaf community values American Sign Language as the core of a culturally Deaf identity. Through ASL, members are given a unique medium for personal expression, a spatial and visual language that does not require the use of sound and emphasizes hands, faces, bodies and eyes.

Who proved ASL is a real language? ›

William C. Stokoe Jr.

When learning ASL what is taught first? ›

Sign Language Alphabet

Learning to sign the alphabet (known as the manual alphabet) is usually the first place to begin.

What does the D in the word deaf mean? ›

The word deaf is used to describe or identify anyone who has a severe hearing problem. Sometimes it is used to refer to people who are severely hard of hearing too. We use Deaf with a capital D to refer to people who have been deaf all their lives, or since before they started to learn to talk.

What is the prettiest language? ›

Here are (in no particular order) the 10 most beautiful languages in the world, according to Busuu's experts
  • Italian. When it comes to the most attractive languages, for many people the native language of Italy likely springs to mind. ...
  • Arabic. ...
  • English. ...
  • (Brazilian) Portuguese. ...
  • 5. Japanese. ...
  • Turkish. ...
  • French.
1 Jul 2021

What is ASL and why is it important? ›

American Sign Language is the primary language of many North Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing and identify as part of the Deaf community. Not only is ASL different from signed English, it is also as different from its European counterpart as English is to French.

What is unique about Deaf culture Deaf culture value? ›

Values in the Deaf community include the importance of clear communication for all both in terms of expression and comprehension. Deaf residential schools and Deaf clubs are important because of the natural social interaction they offer.

What are the four core values of Deaf culture? ›

All cultures, including Deaf culture have four components: language, behavioral norms, values and traditions. For Deaf culture, vision plays a significant role in each of the four components.

What are 4 cultural behaviors in the deaf culture? ›

Deaf community norms include: Maintaining eye contact. Being blunt and direct, whether in description or opinion. Waving, tapping the shoulder, stamping on the floor, banging on the table, and turning the lights on and off to get someone's attention.


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