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ASL: A Distinct Cultural Language

American Sign Language (ASL) is the visual-gestural language used by the majority of Deaf individuals in the United States. Current estimates are that between 100,000 and 500,000 people use ASL (Padden, 1987). This population includes native signers: Deaf children who learned ASL as their first language, and fluent signers who have learned ASL from other Deaf people.


ASL is the glue of Deaf culture. The social, communal and creative mores of Deaf culture, are expressed by, and created within the context of Deaf people’s language, and the language in turn, changes dynamically with its usage in the community. Deaf culture encompasses communication, social protocol, art, entertainment, recreation and education.


The history of ASL is rich and long. Its origins can be traced to the emergence of a large community of deaf people centered around the first public school for the deaf in France, founded about 1761. The language that arose in this community is still being used in France today, and is known as French Sign Language (FSL). In 1817, a Deaf teacher from this school helped establish the first public school for deaf children in the United States. Although his French Sign Language was the official sign language of the school, the children’s own gestural system mingled with it, resulting in a new form that was no longer identifiable as French Sign Language. The American Sign Language of today still reflects its French Sign Language origins, although the two languages are distinct (Padden, 1988).


There are several common misconceptions about ASL. One misconception is that ASL is either a collection of individual gestures or merely a code on the hands for spoken English. In fact, although ASL does use gesture, just as English uses sound, it is not made up merely of gestures, any more than English is made up merely of noises. Individual signs are themselves structured grammatical units, which are placed in slots within sentences according to grammatical rules.


Another misconception is that signs are a form of fingerspelling. Signs are separate and distinct from "Finger Spelling" which is a manual system in which a hand configuration is used to represent a letter of the alphabet. Although signers may finger spell in English term or name, the bulk of their signed communication is made up not of finger spelling but of signs, which are structured according to an entirely independent set of rules.


ASL is a combination of standard signs, initializing signs and finger spelling. Modifications of facial expressions sign movements and body positions provide adjectives and adverbs. Facial expressions in ASL is rule-governed and expresses not only emotion, but also specific grammatical features. Eye gaze, head shift and body shift is also rule-governed.


For many ASL users, ASL is their first language. English is their second, non-native language. ASL had no written form, which means that there are no newspapers, magazines, or books written in ASL. ASL can, however be translated into written English, and there are many books, magazines, videos and theater in the Deaf community. Although the average ASL user is fluent in written English. The average reading and writing level for many ASL users is between third and fifth grade. More and more ASL users are becoming fluent in written English, due to a new emphasis on bilingual-bicultural education.


In the last few years, ASL has gained respect and acknowledgment from linguists as a formal and sophisticated language. There has been a phenomenal increase in linguistic research on ASL in recent years, and as our knowledge base increases, language scientists are recognizing ASL as a unique language that is as precise, versatile and subtle, as any spoken language.