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What is ASL (American Sign Language)?

What is ASL (American Sign Language)?

Based on statistics provided by the Communication Service for the Deaf, there are over 500,000 signers of American Sign Language in the United States making ASL the third most popular language in the country. ASL even transcends borders as it is also used in some parts of Europe and Africa. So, what is ASL exactly?

Updated on Dec 20, 2023
5 min read

Based on statistics provided by the Communication Service for the Deaf, there are over 500,000 signers of American Sign Language in the United States making ASL the third most popular language in the country. ASL even transcends borders as it is also used in some parts of Europe and Africa. So, what is ASL exactly?

American sign language is a form of communication or visual language that is used mainly by people that are Deaf or Hard of Hearing in the United States. ASL is recognized as the official sign language of the American Deaf community.

So, when was ASL officially recognized as a language? Where did ASL originate from? and what is the importance of American Sign Language in the United States? The answers to this question and everything you need to know about American Sign are revealed in this article. Let's dive in.

Where Did ASL Originate From?

The origins of American Sign Language (ASL) can be traced back to the early 1700s when Deaf communities started to emerge in different corners of the country. These communities were very small and consisted of just a few people. However, many of these people were Hard of Hearing . One of these Deaf communities was Martha's Vineyard; an island in Massachusetts.

Out of the need to communicate, the Deaf residents in these Deaf communities began to develop hand gestures and facial expressions as a means of communication. The signs aided effective communication between the Deaf residents but none of these sign languages was termed American Sign Language. Instead, people named the sign language after the community it was from. For instance, the sign language used by Deaf residents in Martha's Vineyard was known as the Martha's Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL).

About a hundred years later, different countries began to develop their sign languages, and in 1817, two signers; Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc co-founded the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. The school was focused on Deaf education in America and was the birthplace of American Sign Language.

In the school, the teachers combined native sign languages in the United States like the Martha's Vineyard Sign Language with signs that students used between themselves in the school to form American Sign Language.

The development of this language was reinforced in 1960 when William Stokoe; a linguist professor, led a team that produced the first American Sign Language dictionary. The dictionary contained the grammar, vocabulary, language system, and rules of syntax of American Sign Language.

The Grammar And Vocabulary Of ASL

A lot of people believe that American Sign Language (ASL) uses the same rules of syntax, grammar, and vocabulary as American English Language. Some others believe that ASL is a way of expressing English words through signs and facial expressions (signed English). These assumptions are all false. ASL has its own unique language system and it is very different from the words and phrases used in spoken English.

The Difference Between American Sign Language Grammar and American English Grammar

American Sign Language is a visual language meaning that it has to be seen to be understood. This is different from the English language system which has to be heard to be understood. The phrases, expressions, and words in ASL are usually a combination of different signs, hand gestures, and facial expressions.

In ASL, a single sign or hand movement can convey the same information as a whole sentence in spoken English. For instance, in spoken English, to change a statement to a question, you have to change the order of the statement and add the phrase "Do or Did." Sometimes, you have to also change the tense of the verb in the sentence.

So, "You go to school." becomes "Do you go to school?" and “He did that.” becomes "Did he do that?". Note that in the second instance, "did" had to be changed to "do" to fit into the context. This is all part of English grammar. In ASL grammar, changing a statement to a question can simply be done with the raise of your eyebrow.

Also, feelings and emotions like sadness, happiness, excitement, and the like are expressed using facial expressions but in spoken English, you need words to express these feelings. In ASL, signers know to pay attention to the other signer's face. The manual signs made can be seen through the peripheral vision but the tone and expression of the statement are expressed on the face. This is why eye contact and the cognitive development of your peripheral vision are important to learning sign language.

Also, in spoken English and other spoken languages, you have to include an object or subject in your sentence while in sign language, the direction of the hand indicates who is being addressed.

There are other differences in the grammar and vocabulary of ASL indicating that American Sign Language is a language in its own right. A transliterator or sign language interpreter that offers English interpreting services will tell you that there is a big difference between the grammar and syntax of spoken English and sign language. ASL has its dictionary, American Sign Language alphabet, phrases, grammar, vocabulary, and language system that makes it different.

The Difference Between ASL and Other Sign Languages

You should also know that there are different sign languages and each sign language, much like ASL, has its unique rules or grammar and syntax. For instance, the French Sign Language used in France is different from the British Sign language (BSL) used in Britain since both forms of sign language were developed independently of the other. Just the same way all other types of sign languages including the Indian Sign Language were developed independently.

When Was ASL Recognized As A Language?

The recognition of ASL as a language started with the establishment of the first American school for the Deaf in 1817. After the school was established, people started to pay attention to sign language and how signers used it to communicate. There was still a lot of confusion and skepticism about the language by the general public during this period.

However, in 1864, the then US President, Abraham Lincoln signed a charter that recognized the use of American Sign Language (ASL) in the country and allowed Gallaudet University to award degrees to deserving signers.

The charter also led to the establishment of the first Deaf university, Gallaudet University in Washington DC the same year. This can be said to be the period when ASL was recognized as a language in its own right. When William Stokoe published the first ASL dictionary in 1960, several schools were teaching ASL, and even more people were learning the American Sign Language.

Are There Laws And Institutions That Protect And Promote ASL?


Several international, federal, and state laws guide and promote the recognition of American Sign Language in the United States. The very first of these laws was the 1864 bill signed by Abraham Lincoln to allow Gallaudet University to give degrees to deserving signers. This federal law promoted the learning and use of American Sign Language everywhere in the country since people could now earn degrees in the language.

In modern times, different laws protect the use of ASL between signers in the country. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is one such law. The disabilities act is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas and allows for equal opportunities for disabled people including people that are Deaf or Hard of Hearing.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) also allows for students with disabilities to learn through special aids and programs that are designed for them. For people that are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, the way to learn is through American Sign Language.


Asides from the laws and bills, there are also big institutions that were established to safeguard and promote the recognition of American Sign Language in the United States. In the education sector, we have Gallaudet University in Washington DC, The National Technical Institute for The Deaf in New York, The Southwest College for The Deaf in Texas, and other top universities and colleges.

There are also top institutions and organizations established for everything Deaf-related in the country. The National Association of The Deaf (NAD), The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), and the Registry of Interpreters for The Deaf (RID) are all established to guard and protect the use of ASL among Deaf people and Hearing people.

The National Association Of The Deaf (NAD) values and protects the teaching, learning, and acquisition of American Sign Language. The NAD was created in part to promote and preserve ASL as a legitimate language and an optimal educational tool for Deaf children and adults.

Some states also have departments and organizations for people that are Hard of Hearing. The Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, The Kentucky Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing are all examples.

What Is ASL Proficiency?

The American Sign Language proficiency level is the measure of a person's mastery of ASL. The ASL proficiency level ranges from 0-5 where 0 is the lowest level and 5 is the highest level of ASL mastery.

To know which level you are at, you'll have to take the American Sign Language Proficiency Interview (ASLPI). The interview is a face-to-face assessment of a person's mastery of ASL and after the interview, you will be graded based on your ability to sign and understand ASL.

Level 0

This is the lowest level of ASL proficiency. Signers at this level are usually beginners with very little to no understanding of the ASL manual alphabet, signs, expressions, and grammar. People who are just starting their ASL learning journey are usually at this level.

After some time and practical experience, signers in this level can identify everyday objects, exchange greetings, and give basic background information like their names, age, and gender. At this level, signers use a memorized vocabulary.

Level 1

This is the next stage of ASL sign language proficiency and signers at this level understand basic sign language. This includes exchanging greetings, answering simple questions, and understanding basic signs. At this level, a signer would make mistakes a lot and due to a minimal knowledge of ASL vocabulary, sentences at this level are usually short, simple, and repetitive. Signers still use a memorized vocabulary but at this stage, they can sign more words than level 0.

Level 2

Signers at this level can communicate with more confidence. There are fewer errors at this level and signers can communicate on familiar topics ranging from social discussions to family and trending topics. Signers at this level might shy away from unfamiliar topics and resort to using memorized phrases and responses. Also, there is usually a delayed reaction time from the signer at this level because it takes a while for him or her to decode messages and understand signs.

The comprehension at this level is basic and responses to questions are less expressive and short. At this level, a signer begins to display self-repair ability where he or she corrects his or her own mistakes.

Level 3

At this level, signers can communicate with ease. They can discuss familiar and unfamiliar topics with a relative degree of accuracy. Their vocabulary is also broad, having memorized and come across different phrases and signs. They can communicate at the paragraph discourse level due to improved knowledge of ASL vocabulary and grammar structure.

However, signers at this level might experience difficulty when detailed or in-depth elaboration is required. Self-repair ability at this stage is more noticeable and signers can ask different questions to gather information.

Level 4

At this level, signers can express information very accurately and precisely. There are very few errors at this stage but the signer may struggle with NMS (Non-manual signs) and depiction. Signers at this level are confident to sign about familiar and unfamiliar topics. They can ask questions, give direct and extensive answers and even have discussions above the paragraph discourse level. The level of comprehension here is also very good.

Level 5

This is the highest level of ASL mastery and it is given to only signers with advanced American Sign Language knowledge. At this level, your understanding of ASL vocabulary and grammar structure is improved. Signers at this level can teach sign language very easily and engage in long discussions on either familiar or unfamiliar topics. Comprehension is great and signers can ask questions easily.

Passing information at this level is also done with a high degree of accuracy. Level 5 signers of ASL are known to be interpreters, professors, and researchers. At this level, a signer can express opinions, discuss complex matters, and have discussions with no errors.

The Importance of ASL in the United States 

There are many reasons ASL is important and necessary in the United States. The main reason is that ASL is the native language of the Deaf community in the United States.  ASL also helps to break down the  communication barrier between the Hearing and Deaf community . Good knowledge and mastery of ASL has its perks and here are some other benefits of learning sign language:

American Sign language Is Used As A Form Of Communication Between People That Are Deaf or Hard Of Hearing

In the US, ASL is the official language of the Deaf community. It aids communication and the passing of important information between Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals. ASL is also important because it is a great way to include the Deaf community in the political and decision-making processes of the country. Learning ASL helps to bridge the gap between the Deaf and Hearing community and create a society where everyone feels included. 

American Sign Language Can Open Doors For You Career-Wise

ASL is in high demand not just within the United States, but in other countries too. The need for sign language interpreters and linguists continues to grow around the country. You can offer sign language interpreting services, teach ASL, work in government agencies and publication departments and even conduct research in technical companies.

American Sign Language Is An Important Part Of Deaf Culture In The United States

Learning ASL doesn't just teach you a new language, but learning ASL also teaches you about Deaf culture in the country. You get to learn about the history, growth, and development of ASL and important Deaf people over the years. 

ASL Helps With The Development Of Other Languages

ASL as a natural sign language helps signers with language development and it can help in learning other forms of sign language. As Hearing students, learning sign language adds you to a short line of people with great oral skills and American Sign Language knowledge. As an ASL user, you can use sign language to improve your sign language skills and communication skills.

Is ASL Used By Only Deaf People?

American Sign Language isn't used by only Deaf people. ASL is the official sign language in America and even hearing people are also signers of ASL. Hearing people learn and sign ASL to have effective communication with Deaf relatives and friends in their everyday life. There are Deaf public schools and online classes that teach ASL as an effective means of communication.

Final Words

In summary, American Sign Language (ASL) is a visual natural language that uses signs made with the hands, arms, and face to communicate ideas and feelings. It is the official sign language of people that are Deaf and Hard of Hearing in the United States and its origins can be traced back to the 1800s when Gallaudet and Clerc founded the first school for the Deaf.

The importance of learning sign language is backed by different laws and institutions that promote the use of ASL in the Deaf community and hearing community.

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