ASL is now used by approximately one-half million Deaf people in the U.S. and Canada.
In the nineteenth century, a French Deaf man, Laurent Clerc, along with Thomas Gallaudet, brought a sign language system into the US to teach to people who were deaf. As you might imagine, American Sign Language and the Old French Sign Language have a lot of similarities because of this. Even though this is true, you will discover not all sign languages evolved from the same source.
A lot of people believe that sign language is a universal language and everyone who is deaf will understand it. In actuality, there are very many different sign languages, even in the US alone. Just like spoken languages, sign languages develop differently when people are isolated from one another. The Deaf are on "language islands" where unique characteristics evolve on each of those islands. So, depending on the area and the amount of contact with the deaf community, a person who is deaf could learn any one of several languages. For example, British Sign Language and American Sign Language are totally different from each other even though both countries speak English.
Another common misconception is that ASL is based on English or that it is gestural English. Really, there isn't any connection at all. ASL shares no grammatical similarities with English. It has a topic-comment structure different from English's subject-predicate structure. Also, ASL is not all communication by hands. This language relies heavily on facial expressions and mouth movements. From this body language, a person who is deaf can pick up the connotations of a conversation much like a hearing person listening to tone of voice. ASL is capable of conveying subtle, complex, and abstract ideas as skillfully and firmly as any spoken language. One can express poetry, humor, wit, and satire just as passionately in ASL as any other spoken language.
ASL doesn't have a direct connection to the grammar of the English Language. With this in mind, a lot of educators in the US around the middle nineteenth century decided it was necessary to teach signing systems that more directly correlated with the English Language. That is why there are several different sign languages in the US today, including Signed Exact English I and II, Cued Speech, Signed English, Pidgin Signed English.
While a few signs from ASL differ from signs of these other sign languages, the main difference between these is the degree of similarity with English grammar. Some try to strictly mirror the English language and others are more flexible. For the most part, starting from Signed Exact English I on the list above, each language becomes progressively more flexible.
Because of ASL's flexibility and reseasonableness to a person who is deaf, it tends to be more natural and the language of choice for the deaf community. After all, ASL evolved from the deaf community. The other systems are more arbitrary and were developed with other goals in mind than just to communicate in the most direct and efficient way.
ASL evolved from the existing French sign system and a large deaf community on the island of Martha's Vineyard. It's no surprise it is the language of choice for Deaf Americans. The language is conceptually based so ideas are very apparent and one expression can pack a lot more meaning than the number of words it might take to express it in English. Also, because of the conceptually based system of ASL, a sentence in Signed English might have a completly different word order than the same sentence in ASL. For example, click on the Signed English and ASL versions of the following statement:
(Note: this requires the RealVideo player found here)
As you can see word order is different for ASL and Signed English. The grammar is different because ASL is conceptually based. The word order is based on the relationships between the words, rather than the grammatical rules of English. The language is very complex because so much can be going on at one time. However, even today, there really is not a lot written about the structure of ASL.
Because of the differences between English and ASL, many people interested in the deaf community are lobbying to have ASL recognized as an "academic" language for credit in American schools. (See Article)
Our best suggestion for learning ASL is through a Deaf person who knows it or a class taught by a Deaf person. However, at this time many schools do not offer ASL as a class for credit or at all (many communities are attempting to change this). It is almost impossible to learn ASL from books. You can get a taste of the language from our web site and CD-ROMs packed with lots of vocabulary. But just like an English to French dictionary, these learning aids are more of a helpful supplement than a complete learning source.
Find a class and form a study group with people who are deaf if you really want to learn. Many churches that provide interpreting services for the deaf, also provide Sign Language instruction. Some junior colleges have interpreter training programs with connections to Gallaudet University, and they offer excellent sign language classes. Call today and find out how to get involved in a class, then use the Internet to keep on top of what is going on with the Deaf in America and around the world!