American Sign Language: What You Need To Know And Why It's Unique (2023)

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) Unique Not Different - The Basics of 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) ASL students after learning one word in sign language 😂😭


What makes ASL a unique language? ›

ASL is a language completely separate and distinct from English. It contains all the fundamental features of language, with its own rules for pronunciation, word formation, and word order.

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

Why is knowing American Sign Language Important? ›

Being proficient in ASL allows you to communicate with a wide range of hearing, hard of hearing, and deaf individuals—including students in mainstream and deaf school or university programs and deaf or hard of hearing residents and business people in your community.

What are the most important ASL signs to know? ›

Basic signs everyone should know
  • Good Morning / Good Afternoon / Evening.
  • How are you? Good / Fine.
  • Have a good day / Have a good night / Have a good weekend.
  • Thank you/You're welcome.
  • Can I help you? / How can I help you?
  • Where is _____? ...
  • How do you sign [finger spell word]?
  • Sorry / excuse me / please.

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 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 main idea of sign language? ›

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.

What do you need to know for ASL? ›

The Five Elements

Just like how we see English words as the arrangement of letters, there are five basic sign language elements that make up each sign. The five elements are: handshape, movement, palm orientation, location, and facial expression.

What are four benefits of learning ASL? ›

So if you're fluent in ASL, here are four fascinating benefits that you just might have:
  • ASL helps babies communicate better and sooner. ...
  • ASL leads to higher reading levels in kids. ...
  • Native ASL signers have incredible spatial reasoning. ...
  • ASL brings long-term cognitive benefits.

What is the most important background knowledge to have when learning ASL? ›

It is vital to learn the ASL alphabet when you start out with American Sign Language. Knowing the alphabet will give you the skill to sign any word. So, if you forget a sign you can simply spell it. To become better at fingerspelling, try to spell objects you see around yourself like C-O-M-P-U-T-E-R or T-R-E-E.

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.

What are the 5 components 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.

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 not a universal language? ›

Sign language is not a universal language — each country has its own sign language, and regions have dialects, much like the many languages spoken all over the world. Like any spoken language, ASL is a language with its own unique rules of grammar and syntax.

Is ASL always recognized as a true 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 is the most unique language? ›

Pirahã: The Most Unique Language in the World
  • What's the most unique language in the world? ...
  • Pirahã lacks basic sentence structure, undermining the long-held belief that sentence structure is something that all languages have in common. ...
  • Tonality isn't the only thing that makes Pirahã so unique.
13 Apr 2018

What are the four important feature of language? ›

These include morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics and phonology. Morphology is the study of word structure. It describes how words are formed out of more basic elements of language called morphemes.

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.

Why is the rule of 9 An important feature of ASL? ›

The "Rule of 9" in ASL is a means of incorporating the numbers up to nine with particular concepts into a single sign. Those concepts include: minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and money. Learn all about the Rule of 9 and practice using those number/signs in sentences.

What is the first thing taught in 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's powerful in/sign language? ›

Sign strong by flexing your arms in front of your body with hands initially touching the front of your shoulder muscles, then move both hands away from your shoulders while closing them into fists, as if showing off how strong your muscles are.

What is the importance of sign communication? ›

Sign languages are an extremely important communication tool for many deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Sign languages are the native languages of the Deaf community and provide full access to communication.

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.

Is ASL a valuable skill? ›

Learning sign language is crucial for those who are deaf or hearing impaired, as well as their friends and family members. But, what many people may not realize is that sign language can be a valuable life skill for just about anyone to develop.

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 3 things are required for signing WH questions in ASL? ›

While asking wh-questions, there are three important NNM to use: lower your eyebrows. lean your head forward. hold the last sign in your sentence (which is usually the wh-question word)

What are 5 benefits of learning a new language? ›

Language learning has been shown to improve a student's cognitive function, including, but not limited to:
  • Enhanced Problem Solving Skills.
  • Improved Verbal and Spatial Abilities.
  • Improved Memory Function (long & short-term)
  • Enhanced Creative Thinking Capacity.
  • Better Memory.
  • More Flexible and Creative Thinking.

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.

What is the most important thing when learning a language? ›

Learning a language can be as easy or as difficult as you want it to be. Ask anyone with true language learning experience and they will tell you that the one thing that is more important than anything else is spoken practice.

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 the most basic structure in 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 is the 1 9 rule in ASL? ›

The Rule of 9 in American Sign Language (ASL) is a term that describes a rule or pattern in numeral incorporation that a number only up to 9 is incorporated with a regular sign, usually related to time with a few exceptions.

What are ASL skills? ›

4 Key Skills of a Sign Language Interpreter
  • Knowing every sign perfectly. ...
  • Exceptional observation skills. ...
  • Quick thinking. ...
  • Experience in many fields.
21 Aug 2017

What are the 7 classifiers in ASL? ›

According to the Signing Naturally (2014) curriculum, published by Dawn Sign Press, there are eight:
  • Semantic Classifier,
  • Descriptive Classifier,
  • Instrument Classifier,
  • Element Classifiers,
  • Locative Classifier,
  • Body Classifier,
  • Body Part Classifier, and.
  • Plural Classifier.

What are the 5 ASL turn taking strategies? ›

ASL Turn-Taking Strategies Include:
  • closing signals.
  • Question-Maker Face (NMS – eyebrows up) and WH Face (NMS – eyebrows down)
  • using the “HOLD-ON” sign to ask someone to pause or wait.
  • moving up your hands to signal to the person signing that you wish to communicate.

Why is ASL literature unique? ›

"ASL is visual literature, meaning stories are preserved and passed down from generation to generation by the act of signed storytelling instead of spoken or written down. ASL is not a written language but this is not an uncommon occurrence in the world.

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.

Why is ASL better than oral language? ›

“Along some dimensions, sign languages are more expressive than spoken language because they combine the same kind of logical resources with far richer iconic means,” he concludes. “They are, in a sense, 'super languages' – and they have a unique contribution to make to our understanding of human meaning.”

Is ASL the hardest language to learn? ›

Sign language is one of the easiest languages to learn. So many of the signs are commonplace gestures. Children pick up on the signs quickly and are eager to use them.

What is the major difference between ASL and Signed English? ›

While Signed English and ASL share many of the same signs, there is a distinct difference between the two: Signed English is a variation of English expressed visually, while ASL is its own language (Bornstein, Luczak, Saulnier, Hamilton, and Miller 1983).

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

Which language sounds most beautiful? ›


With its unpronounceable “r”, its nasal vowel sounds “en”, “in”, “un” and melodious intonation, it sounds extremely musical to the non-native ear. And let's not forget the strong cultural context which lends French the status of the most beautiful spoken language in the world.

Why is ASL so expressive? ›

Signers are animated not because they are bubbly and energetic, but because sign language uses face and body movements as part of its grammar. In American Sign Language, certain mouth and eye movements serve as adjectival or adverbial modifiers.

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.

Is being deaf unique? ›

Being deaf is part of our identity.

People who are deaf might use hearing aids, have cochlear implants or not have any hearing assistance at all. Each person is an individual and unique in their own way, just like a person in the hearing community.

What are the 4 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.


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