What is American Sign Language?
American Sign Language (ASL) is a complete, intricate language that utilizes gestures and signs made by moving the hands combined with facial expressions, stances, and postures of the body.
ASL is the main language in many North Americans who are deaf and is a communication technique for mostly deaf people.
What we know, is that there is no specific or universal sign language. Each sign language depends on the country of the region. For example, there is (BSL) which is British Sign Language, (LSF) which is French Sign Language. Those who know ASL may not necessarily know other sign languages.
Girl signing I Love You
Sign Language has been used all over the United States and the world. Before the birth of ASL, it has been known that hearing families with deaf children use something known as Home Sign which is a sign language created by a deaf child that combines the characteristics of spoken and signed languages.
The first claims of the formation or discovery of a sign language trace back to 1541, where explorer and conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado y Luján suspected that Indians were using a sign language to communicate with other tribes.
In the 19th century, a few important sign language have emerged. Most importantly Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. MVSL played a big role in the formation of today’s ASL. MVSL was not limited to deaf people but hearing people used it also when around deaf people because, after the rise of intermarriages, the number of deaf children due to genetics at that time increased by 4-5%.
A hearing minister and graduate at Yale University, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet met a young deaf girl called Alice at the beginning of the 1800’s. He managed to teach her a few words. Afterwards, Mason Cogswell, Alice’s father, who was a doctor himself, encouraged Gallaudet to get involved in setting up a school dedicated entirely for the deaf. Convinced with the idea, Gallaudet headed in 1815 for Europe in search of new methods to teach the deaf. He then discussed the idea with some program directors, such as those at the Braidwood schools, the London Asylum, and others, but none of them were willing to share their techniques with him.
While on his trip, Gallaudet got to meet Sicard, the director of a Paris school for the deaf along with his two deaf students, Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc who were also teachers at the school. The three of them were giving presentations in England on the techniques of teaching the sign language to the deaf. The Paris school, which was headed by Sicard, had been founded by the Abbe Charles Michel de L’epee in 1771 and used French sign language as well as a set of systematically advanced signs. Impressed by their presentation, Gallaudet convinced Laurent Clerc to return with him to the United States and in 1817 they established the first American School for the deaf in the city of Hartford, Connecticut. Slowly but surely, the new methods adopted by the school had a great impact. The sign language used at the school in combination with the signs that were already used by deaf people in the United States developed into what is commonly known now as the American Sign Language.
More schools for the deaf were founded after that and the ASL reached the walls of those schools. The National Association of the Deaf and the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf created numerous conventions to attract more people and that aided in spreading the word about ASL.
ASL was not acknowledged as an actual language by Linguists. It wasn’t until 1955 when linguist William Stokoe where an actual recognition for the ASL as a language was achieved. Stokoe then argued for the use of manualism for teaching in deaf schools when the use of Oralism was the dominant type of teaching.
The First College for the Deaf
After the death of Thomas Gallaudet in 1851, his youngest son Edward Miner Gallaudet continued his work in the education of the deaf. Edward then went on to become a teacher at the American school for the deaf in Hartford. In 1857, Edward was asked to be the superintendent of the Colombia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and the Blind in Washington D.C. In 1864, Colombia’s college division for the deaf opened. The name of the college changed over the years but is now known as Gallaudet University in honor of the Gallaudet’s and is the first ever college for the deaf in the world.
Myths about American Sign Language
I. Myth: Sign Language is Universal
What we hear most about sign language is that it is universal. Meaning it is easy to understand, comprehend, learn and available worldwide. These allegations were proposed by early writers such as Remy Valade, the writer of the first grammar book on French Sign Language in 1854 and Abbe de L’Epee, the French priest who founded public education for deaf people in the late 18th century. According to Valade and Epee, sign language is a universal language that unites all deaf people in the world. In addition, they perceived that sign language is just an imitation of events and objects and presented in their natural form. They believed that if all hearing people learned sign language, the world would have a ready-made universal sign. However, by just observing some of the known sign languages in the world, it refutes this misconception. Sign languages such as American Sign languages (ASL), British Sign language (BSL), Australian Sign Language (AUSLAN), Japanese Sign Language and many others differ greatly from each other, just as spoken languages from different countries differ.
II. Myth: Reality Must Be Word-Based
American Sign Language is often denounced for being conceptual and not word-based. However, ASL is no different from other spoken languages because the main idea behind a language is to convey a concept whether it being through words or gestures and signals. Moreover, we can’t say that ASL is the same as English. ASL is an independent language where signs directly represent a certain concept.
Sign language is the main language for deaf adults all over the world, regardless of the country. It is also the primary language for deaf children whether they have deaf parents or hearing parents, where the socialization of deaf children primarily takes place in specific institutes.
III. Myth: Signs Are Exalted Gestures
Signs may appear to be random movements of the body, hands and mixed with facial expressions to someone unfamiliar with ASL. A huge misconception that is still ongoing to this day is that signs are just exalted and glorified gestures. Despite the difference in transmission, linguists find many similarities in the structure of sign languages and spoken languages.
Signs are made by combining simultaneously handshapes, the orientation of the palms, movements of the hand(s), and their location on or near the body (Stokoe, 1960). There are rules that specify the availability or possibility of a certain combination of signs in ASL. However, some combinations are considered impossible if they violate the rules.
IV. Myth: Sign Language is Iconic
Sign language is often described as picture-like. There are various things to consider when speaking of the iconicity of signs. First, Different sign languages have different signs for various concepts, not all signs of a particular concept is the same as another from a different language. Second, If signs were truly iconic and picture-like as they are perceived, then hearing people would have no difficulty in understanding deaf people’s signing with limited instructions. Students of sign language show that learning ASL is as difficult and time-consuming as learning and becoming fluent in a spoken language. Third, signs that are often made in isolation are incomprehensible for nonsigners in a sign conversation. That may be because of the modification of signs and the fast signing in a sign conversation.
Fourth, iconicity doesn’t play a role in the acquisition of ASL in children. For example, at the time a young child learns how to sign CHEESE, a piece of CHEESE is his only experience of the source. It may be years later when he learns how cheese is made. Thus, with this example, it shows that the iconic element of the sign CHEESE is lost on the child.
Fifth, signers usually offer “explanations” for nonsigners during a conversation. The argument that sign language is iconic may appear more favorable if each sign had an actual single explanation. However, just as a word has many derivations in a spoken language, some signs have several etymologies.
The iconicity of a language is sometimes expressed in poetry, but it has no role in ASL communication among native signers.
V. Myth: Sign Language is Abstract
The myth that sign language is although available for expressing concrete concepts, it is still restricted with the capacity to deal with only abstract ideas. However, just as an oral language has the capacity to create new words and vocabulary when needed, sign language has the flexibility of that also. ASL signers have a lot of direct contact with English whether written or spoken. Thus, in 1978 Battison has shown that some finger-spelled words borrowed from English become a part of ASL vocabulary, the same as some words borrowed from one oral language to another.
We generally have a good idea about how many spoken languages exist in the world, the least a few thousand. There are many sources one could use if searching for the number of spoken languages such as websites, language atlases, encyclopedia and other reports about this topic. However, we do not have a certain understanding of how many sign languages there are. Ethnologue.com which claims to be a reference volume of “the known living languages in the world” only recently began listing sign language as an actual language used by people. Surprisingly, 121 sign languages were listed in its 2005 edition.
As Mathur, G., and Napoli, D.J state in their book ” Deaf Around The Wolrd: The Impact of a Language” that: ” The entry for ASL, not surprisingly, is longer and more detailed since it is a comparatively well-researched language. An estimated 100-500 thousand users of ASL are reported.”
The Linguistic Description of ASL
Various studies have made that argue with the fact that American Sign Language (ASL) is a language in all the linguistic sense that word can offer. Research into the structure of ASL began back in 1960 by Stokoe and only recently, full details of ASL such as acquisition, history, educational implications, memory, and others have been approached. There have been many topics that have been investigated by many linguists, scientists, and professionals. For example: sociolinguistics (Woodward, 1973a, 1973b, 1973c), borrowing from English through fingerspelling (Battison, 1978), syntax (Liddell, 1977), phonology (Friedman, 1976a, 1976b). These and many other topics about ASL have shed light on the linguistic features of ASL.
In 1960, Stokoe investigated sign creations or formation which he named ” Cherology”, using and describing it as analogous to the phonological system of oral languages. He explained 3 parameters that were in the formation of any sign – SIG (signation and motion), DEZ (designator, handshape) and TAB (tabulation, location). Orientation, a fourth parameter which refers to the orientation of the palm, later on, added by Battison (1973; Battison, Markowicz, &Woodward, 1975). Just like how in oral languages, some features are combined to produce vocal segments, the four Stokoe parameters are produced simultaneously to form signs.
In spoken languages, some physical constraints make certain combinations of features undoable. For example, a vowel can’t be both high and low. Other combinations of features are also impossible because of linguistic grounds. Combinations of sign parameters have been described in similar condition as above. Klima and Bellugi (1975) claimed that humor and poetry may be created from sign violations of these conditions. Few of the conditions on allowable signs may be attributed to constraints put on the visual mode by perceptual mechanism (Siple, 1978), whereas others, for example, the Symmetry Condition by Battison (1974) may be motivated to produce correctly.
However, there are different conditions such as Contact in two-touch signs by Battison, Markowicz and Woodward (1975) that may be linguistically arbitrary.
ASL has no well-established writing system, however written sign language originated nearly two centuries ago. Roch-Ambroise Auguste Bébian is the founder of the original systematic writing system for a sign language that developed in 1825. However, written sign language continued to be marginal to the public. The linguist, William Stokoe, created Stokoe symbolization precisely for ASL in the 1960s. It is alphabetic, with a letter or diacritic for each phonemic (distinctive) hand form, orientation, motion, and position, even though it lacks any representation of facial expression, and is better suited for extended passages of text rather than individual words. Stokoe used this system for his 1965 A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles.
The first writing system to gain use among the public and the first writing system for sign languages to be included in the Unicode Standard, called SignWriting, was proposed in 1974 by Valerie Sutton. It consists of more than 5000 different iconic graphs/glyphs. Currently, it is used in countless schools for the Deaf, mainly in Brazil, and has been used in worldwide sign language forums with talkers and researchers in more than 40 countries, including Brazil, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, the United States and Tunisia. Sutton SignWriting has two forms, a printed and an electronically produced form so that people can use the system anyplace where oral languages are transcribed (individual letters, newspapers, and media, academic research). The systematic examination of the International SignWriting Alphabet (ISWA) as an equivalent usage structure to the International Phonetic Alphabet for spoken languages has been suggested. However, SignWriting is not a phonemic orthography and does not have a one-to-one map from phonological forms to written forms according to some researchers. This declaration has been disputed. Nevertheless, the process for each country to look at the ISWA and produce a phonemic/morphemic project of features of each sign language was recommended by researchers MSC. Roberto Cesar Reis da Costa and Madson Barreto in a thesis forum on June 23, 2014. The SignWriting community has an open project on Wikimedia Labs to support the various Wikimedia projects on Wikimedia Incubator and elsewhere concerning SignWriting. The ASL Wikipedia request was marked as eligible in 200843 and the test ASL Wikipedia has 50 articles written in ASL using SignWriting.
HamNoSys, developed at the University of Hamburg is the most widely used transcription system among academics. Established on Stokoe Notation, HamNoSys was expanded to about 200 graphs in order to permit transcription of any sign language. Phonological features are typically specified with single symbols, though the cluster of features that make up a handshape is indicated collectively by a symbol.
A response to a petition In 2013 that was issued by the White House, gained over 37,000 signatures to officially identify American Sign Language as a community language and a teaching language in schools. The reply addressed that ASL is a vigorous language for the Deaf and those who have difficulty in hearing, and it is also titled “there shouldn’t be any stigma about American Sign Language”. Stigmas associated with sign languages and the use of sign for teaching youngsters often lead to the lack of sign throughout stages in children’s lives when they can access languages most efficiently. Academics such as Beth S. Benedict advocate for both bilingualism (using ASL and English training) and also for early childhood intervention for children who are deaf. York University psychologist Ellen Bialystok argued that those who are bilingual acquire cognitive skills that may aid to avoid dementia later in life. She has also campaigned for bilingualism.
The majority of children born to deaf parents are hearing. These children, known as CODAs (“Children Of Deaf Adults”) are often more culturally Deaf than deaf children, the majority of whom are born to hearing parents. Contrasting many deaf children, CODAs acquire ASL as well as Deaf ethnic ideals and manners from birth. These bilingual hearing children may be falsely categorized as being “slow learners” or as having “language difficulties” due to preferential outlooks concerning spoken language.
There are a lot of varieties of ASL in different places around the world. There are regional accents in sign as in normal speech such as the southern citizens who use sign language slower than northern citizens—even it varies between the northern and southern people in Indiana.
Mutual perspicuity amid these ASL varieties is rather high, and the dissimilarity is mostly lexical. However, the same sign might be signed differently depending on the region which indicates that the variation may also be phonological. As an example, a mutual sort of variation is between the handshapes /1/, /L/, and /5/ in signs with one handshape.
There is a distinctive variety of ASL used by the Black Deaf community. It differs from typical ASL in terminology, phonology, and some grammatical structure. It evolved as an outcome of ethnically separated schools in some states, including the residential schools for the deaf. Black ASL is known to be more traditional than the typical ASL since it preserves older forms of many signs. However, black sign language speakers use additional two-handed signs than in conventional ASL, are less expected to show assimilatory lowering of signs formed on the forehead (e.g. KNOW) and they use a broader signing space.
A group of related sign languages derived from ASL is used in countless different countries. However, in these imported ASL varieties, there have been wavering degrees of variance from standard ASL. Bolivian Sign Language is stated to be a language of ASL, not so different than other recognized dialects. On the other hand, it is also acknowledged that some imported ASL diversities have differed to the level of being distinct languages. For example, Malaysian Sign Language, which has ASL origins, is no longer commonly comprehensible with ASL and needs to be considered its personal language. For some varieties, such as those used in West Africa, it is still questioned that how similar they are to American ASL.
ASL-speakers frequently use an assortment of English structure with ASL which is usually called Pidgin Signed English (PSE) or ‘contact signing’ when they communicate with hearing English speakers. Numerous sorts of PSE are present, fluctuating from greatly English-influenced PSE (basically relexified English) to PSE which is quite near to ASL lexically and grammatically but may vary some restrained structures of ASL syntax. Fingerspelling may be used more often in PSE than it is normally used in ASL. Manually Coded English (MCE) is one of some constructed sign languages, which matches English grammar precisely and merely substitutes verbal words with signs; these are not considered to be varieties of ASL.
Throughout the United States, the variety of ASL which is called Tactile ASL (TASL), is used with the deaf-blind. It is mainly common amongst those with Usher’s syndrome. This syndrome results in deafness from birth then followed by the loss of visualization far along in life; therefore, those with Usher’s syndrome regularly mature in the Deaf community using ASL, and later evolution to TASL. TASL varies from ASL in the signs that are formed by touching the palms. Also, there are some grammatical alterations from typical ASL in order to compensate for the absence of non-manual signing.