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Who Uses American Sign Language, And Where Is It Used?

American Sign Language is becoming more popular, but it's still marred by misconceptions. Here's a guide to what ASL is, how it was made and why the birth of sign languages is such a cool phenomenon.

Most people in the United States don’t encounter American Sign Language very often. The only time the topic reliably comes up in the media is during hurricane season, when sign language interpreters are on hand during press conferences to warn residents of impending storms. Usually, though, interpreters are ridiculed for looking “weird,” like in the case of Gov. Rick Scott’s very expressive interpreter before Hurricane Irma.

The sole reason ASL strikes some of us as strange is because Americans have so little exposure to it. The language is experiencing an upswing of popularity right now, however, and it’s the fourth most-studied language in American universities, behind only French, Spanish and German. Yet, there is an almost complete lack of information about how many people speak the language. A 2005 paper showed estimates that ranged from 100,000 people to 15 million. It’s now over a decade later, but there is still no accurate census of this population. ASL is not an official language in any state, but at the very least, there are laws requiring sign language interpreters at important events.

ASL is an important tool for the hearing-impaired — and for anyone who wants to expand their ability to interact with others. Everyone could use some ASL know-how, so here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.

Is ASL Just English, But With Hand Gestures Instead Of Words?

In short, no. It’s a common misconception that American Sign Language is just a quieter version of English. This would mean that one word is exactly equal to one hand symbol, which oversimplifies ASL. Words and syntax can also change depending on the location of the symbol in the "signing space" and the movement of the hands.

The face is also involved in expressing grammar and emotion, which is why the faces of sign language interpreters often look so expressive. In order to clearly convey meaning, especially from a distance, facial expressions need to be exaggerated.

The strongest example that shows the divide between ASL and English is British Sign Language. A study found that only about 31 percent of ASL and BSL words are identical, which means that while they weren’t formed in total isolation, they’re pretty dissimilar. For a more visual representation of the differences, the video below shows some of the basic differences between the two.

English does affect sign language, though, which is expected given that the two interact so often. There have been attempts to make a sign language that is a perfect analog to English, the most popular of which is called Signing Exact English. The goal of this is to help deaf students learn English more easily, though the evidence for the efficacy of this is sparse at the moment. There is also Pidgin Signed English, which is a sign language that arose from English-speakers communicating with ASL-speakers.

How Was ASL Created?

In 1814, Thomas Gallaudet, a minister from Hartford, Connecticut, was trying to teach his neighbor’s daughter, Alice Cogswell, how to read and write. Though Cogswell was clearly intelligent, Gallaudet had difficulty teaching her — mainly because she was deaf. At that time, there was no deaf education in the United States, so in order to better help her, Gallaudet raised money in his community to travel to Europe, where there were institutes already in place to help teach the deaf.

Gallaudet hit the sign language jackpot when he visited the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris, or the National Institute for Deaf-Mutes in Paris. The institute had been started just half a century earlier by Charles-Michel de l’Épée, and it was the world’s first free school for the deaf. He asked one of the professors, Laurent Clerc, to return to the United States and help him set up a new school, the American School for the Deaf, which opened in 1817. There were 22 schools for the deaf in France by 1863, and many of them started with the help of Clerc.

Because of this French influence, American Sign Language is heavily based on French Sign Language, or LSF. ASL was also created in part by students using the signs they had started to use at home to communicate. ASL and LSF have diverged over time, as all languages do. The similarities, however, are still apparent, especially in concrete elements like the alphabet. The languages are estimated to be about 70 percent similar today, which the video below helps illustrate.

Before ASL, when there were only a few thousand deaf people in the United States, there was no standard sign language. Most deaf people were isolated and created their own simple hand gestures to communicate with others. By creating a standard ASL, deaf people finally had a way to speak to each other in full sentences.

How Similar Is ASL To Other Sign Languages?

Because it’s not spoken, many think that ASL is substantially different than other languages. There are certainly simple sign languages that are unlike spoken languages, but ASL is just as complex. There is a grammar, a syntax and a massive vocabulary.

The most interesting evidence researchers have found about how sign languages are like other languages comes from a story about Nicaragua. Before the 1980s, deaf people in Nicaragua were mostly isolated, so they had no one to speak sign language with, and certainly no one to learn it from. The opening of a vocational school in 1981 provided an opportunity for the students to come together. Without ever being taught to do so, the children began to communicate with each other using a crude sign language they developed. By doing this, they created a pidgin, which is a language that forms when people try to talk to each other but lack a common language.

Over time, the sign language got even more complex. The students built more and more advanced grammatical systems. Eventually, it graduated from a pidgin to a creole, which means that there were deaf students who were being taught the new language, Nicaraguan Sign Language, starting in very early childhood. This process of sign language creation exactly mimics how spoken languages form, and this gave language acquisition experts a lot to study.

Another line of research that has shown sign languages are almost identical to spoken languages has to do with brain damage. Research has shown that brain conditions that inhibit language, like aphasia, tend to affect spoken and signed languages in the same way. There are minor differences when the brain damage creates visual or physical issues because the media of the languages are different, but overall, this shows that the parts of the brain that process spoken language also process signed languages.

Does Every Deaf Person In The United States Speak Exactly The Same Language?

ASL is often treated like it’s a completely standardized language by those who don’t speak it. But just like English, ASL has several dialects and lots of variety.

One of the most widely spoken varieties of ASL is Black ASL. The development of these differences has a long history, dating back to the segregation of schools by race, which included schools for the deaf. The speakers of Black ASL say the main difference between their language and ASL is that theirs is more expressive. Black ASL uses a larger “signing space,” so they will look more active when they’re speaking. Differences between the two can also be influenced by African American English, so, for example, the sign for “bad” in Black ASL will be used to mean “really good.” There are very few comprehensive studies on the topic, but variations in sign language are starting to gain more attention in the linguistic community.

It’s unfortunate that, despite being a complete and fascinating language, American Sign Language is often overlooked as a novelty. The good news is that the language is starting to gain traction in popular media. Deaf West Theater’s reimagining of Spring Awakening on Broadway showed how sign language and choreography can go hand in hand. On Netflix, Aziz Ansari’s Master of None featured a short storyline about a deaf bodega cashier in the critically acclaimed episode “New York I Love You.” You could say it’s quite literally a sign of the times that ASL is slowly gaining the respect it deserves.

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