Is American Sign Language (ASL) a language?

Published September 20, 2022

Today's focus for International Week of Deaf People 2022, September 19th - 25th, is on Sign Languages in Education. This amazing celebration is led by the World Federation of the Deaf.

 

American Sign Language (ASL) is very different from what we usually think of when we think of languages because it uses different parts of our body to communicate and convey a message. Can it be considered a language that is distinct from English? 

This article will give some basic reasons explaining how ASL is a language that is distinct from English by refuting four common misconceptions.

Misconception 1: ASL is a gesture

It might be tempting to think of ASL as a combination of gestures or assume signs all look like the words they represent. This is not the case. 

Gesture implies a limited scope and little to no rules. Think of a game of charades. One person gestures or pantomimes while the others guess what they’re trying to say. Even acting out one phrase or idea is complex and requires a lot of speculation from the other players. By contrast, ASL is just as capable of expressing complex ideas and sentences as English. 

In charades, people follow the rules to help narrow concepts down, such as how to tell people the number of words involved. The rules of ASL are just as complex as the rules of any language. In addition to word order, there are complex rules for things like using facial expressions to build on the meaning of a person’s signs.

It might be tempting to expect signs to look like what they represent; while some signs do, many do not. This is similar to onomatopoeia words in spoken languages. Onomatopoeia words sound like what they mean. Examples of English onomatopoeia include “moo” and “buzz.” There are more words in ASL that look like what they represent, but if you think about it, humans talk much more about what we see than what we hear. And just like onomatopoeia, even though a sign has visual similarities with what it represents, it will still vary from one sign language to another.

Misconception 2: If you know the alphabet, you know sign language

Many hearing people learn the fingerspelling alphabet. The fingerspelling alphabet is only a small part of ASL. ASL users fingerspell the proper names of people, places and things that don’t have a sign. Users also fingerspell some words borrowed from English, often in a stylized manner.  Every language borrows from languages with which it has close contact. It is also common for English users learning ASL to fingerspell something when unsure how to sign it.

Misconception 3: ASL is visual English

People might be tempted to think of ASL as a visual form of English. ASL is entirely separate from English. 

Anyone who has studied a second language knows that there is not exactly one word in one language for each word in another language. This is true for English and ASL. Some examples include:

  • In English, we say “sorry” to apologize for something we did and to express sympathy. ASL has different signs for an apology and an expression of sympathy.
  • Like many languages, ASL does not use words like “the” or “a.”
  • ASL combines several concepts at once when discussing time. For example, “every two weeks” is three words in English. In ASL, it is one word.

ASL has a grammar unique from the grammar of English. Some examples of grammar differences include:

  • While English places the interrogative (who, what, when, etc.) at the beginning of a sentence, ASL puts it at the end.
  • ASL makes use of space to convey meaning. For example, many verbs change directions to indicate who the subject of the sentence is and who the object of the sentence is. 
  • ASL makes use of facial expressions to convey meaning. For example, when clenching your teeth as part of an ASL sign, you describe something nearby, in space or in time).

ASL is completely distinct from English. These examples only scratch the surface of the complexity of ASL. Like other languages, learning ASL takes years. 

Misconception 4: All sign languages are the same

No, there are many sign languages used by deaf people all over the world. Sometimes two or more countries, such as the U.S. and Canada, use the same sign language. However, just because two countries use the same spoken language doesn’t mean they will use the same sign language. ASL is mutually unintelligible with British Sign Language. Knowing one won’t mean you can successfully use the other.

Like spoken languages, sign languages can be closely related to one another because of their history. ASL is closely related to French Sign Language because a deaf Frenchman helped found the first deaf school in the U.S.

It might be tempting to wonder, “why would they make all the sign languages different?” Sign languages weren’t designed. They developed naturally as spoken languages do. Scientists observed and documented the birth and development of Nicaraguan Sign Language in the 1980s. The language emerged naturally among the children without outside influence.

Conclusion

ASL is a fully complex and rich language. ASL is not merely a combination of gestures; fingerspelling is only a small portion, and the vocabulary and grammar are completely distinct from English. Sign languages vary across the globe, just like spoken languages do.

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