American Sign Language


American Sign Language Essay, Research Paper

What would life be like with a severe disability? Physical disabilities seem to be

very stressful because many of them develop overtime, but the majority of them do not

affect one?s communication. The thought of being deaf seems to be far fetched to me,

however it could occur under certain circumstances and like other people, I would have to

adjust accordingly. Although being deaf is a disability in which most are born with, it?s

the disability with the biggest impact on one?s way of communicating. I?m amazed to

think that people become accustomed to communicating other than verbally. This

phenomenon is possible through American Sign Language or ASL. Today American Sign

Language is a complex visual-spatial language that is used by the Deaf community in the

United States and English-speaking parts of Canada. It is also considered linguistically

complete, natural language. ASL is the native language of many Deaf men and women, as

well as some hearing children born into deaf families. ASL has changed the lives of the

deaf population and has opened doors to those not deaf for a career opportunity in

teaching and interpreting it. I?m interested in ASL and would enjoy learning it. I was

frustrated to find out ASL was not considered an alternate course to my foreign language

credits. I?m going to explore this topic and find out whether or not it could be technically

considered a foreign language. I would like to give an in-depth look at all aspects of sign

language and compare it to languages spoken verbally.

Before I discuss my research findings on ASL, I would like to discuss what I?ve

personally experienced from it. Last semester I had a classmate that was deaf and she had

a ASL translator come to class each day. This was very interesting, because it was a

Motor Learning course in Exercise and Sport Sciences. I was interested in observing here

cognitive motor skills and seeing if she differed at all. The only way in which I saw here

differing from any other student is she was probably ahead of everyone. I was also

amazed to see her translator keep up with the professor. The professor talked fast and the

translator was able to keep up with no problem, and the student looked as if she

understood everything. One day in lab, the professor had the student teach the class the

ASL alphabet and about fifteen basic words. I found this to be an interesting learning

experience from an ASL standpoint, not motor learning. The professor?s main objective

was to look at the results from a motor learning standpoint, so it served for two purposes.

We also have a friend of the family in San Antonio that is a policeman named Steve.

Steve has been on the police force for about twenty five years and knows English and

Spanish. Steve once had to report to a situation that involved a deaf person. Steve said

he had never felt so helpless, and a week after this incident he enrolled in an ASL class at

UTSA. Steve now has a good understanding on how to use ASL in case he ever comes

upon this type of situation again. Hearing Steve?s story and being involved directly with a

classmate who knows ASL, has given me much curiosity on the subject.

French sign language first came about in the United States on April 15, 1817, in

Hartford. This is the first time America established a school for the deaf. Eventually the

French sign language was changed into what we know today as American Sign Language.

The new style of sign language created much controversy. ?Anti-signers argued that ASL

let the deaf ?talk? only to the deaf; they must learn to speak and to lip-read. Pro-signers

pointed out that , through sign, the deaf learned to read and write English? (Oaks 314). I

think the anti-signers are being unfair. According to Oaks only ?93 percent of deaf

schoolchildren can lip-read only one in ten everyday sentences in English.? Later in 1880

an international meeting of educators of the deaf were absent the use of sign language in

schools was put to an end. This was largely due to Alexander Graham Bell (inventor of

the telephone), which came as a surprise considering he was married to a woman who

denied her own deafness. Almost one hundred years later, a new federal law mandated

?mainstreaming.? This law was beneficial to some parents because it allowed them to

teach their deaf children at home, instead of sending off to schools, where they didn?t

know what to do with them. I feel bad for these children because they?re isolated and they

feel as if there are none other like them. In reality there are many deaf out there that need

to be given the opportunity to be able to communicate through sign language.

For a long time American Sign Language has been looked at as a form of pidgin

English. Until recently, when the true meaning of ASL was discovered by Bill Stokoe in

1955. This discovery came about when Stokoe went to Gallaudet University in

Washington D.C., which is the worlds only liberal arts university for deaf people. Stokoe

went to Gallaudet to teach English, and was also enrolled in a signing course. Stokoe

noticed the students were doing their signs different from the teacher. Stokoe was taught

a code in which each movement of the hand illustrated the meaning of a word. With the

thought in mind of people considering sign language to only be a pidgin, Stokoe saw it

differently. Stokoe saw the students usage of the sign to be more meaningful and detailed.

This triggered the ideal of whether or not deaf people actually have a genuine language.

Many educators would disagree with Stokoe and claim that sign language is unlike

English, because it?s not a natural language. These educators went on to say that sign

language is not a natural language since its not spoken. Stokoe?s response to this

argument was that ?sign language is based on the movement of hands, the modulation of

space and that language is not mouth stuff – it?s brain stuff? (Oaks 312). This response

was straight to the point and clear. I agree with Stokoe, I understand that there are many

contributing factors that make a language, however in order to produce any form of

language it starts in the brain.

American Sign Language does not have any grammatical similarities to English and

should not be considered in any way to be a gestural form of English. Some people

describe ASL as a ?gestural? language. This is not correct according to Robert Ayers

who says that ?hand gestures are only one component of ASL. Facial features such as

eyebrow motion and lip-mouth movements are also significant in ASL as they form a

crucial part of the grammatical system. In addition, ASL makes use of the space

surrounding the signer to describe places and persons that are not present? (Ayers 17).

A person by the name of Ursula Bellugi is investigating ASL from a scientific

approach at the Salk Institute, a futuristic complex of concrete labs in San Diego. This is

where Bellugi found that ASL uses grammar to regulate its flow. An example of this is ?in

a conversation a signer might make the sign for ?Joe? at an arbitrary spot in space. Now

that spot stands for ?Joe.? By pointing to it, the signer creates the pronoun ?he? or ?him,?

meaning ?Joe.? A sign moving toward the spot means something done to ?him.? A sign

moving away from the spot means an action by Joe, something ?he? did? (Lou 83).

Bellugi later went on to focus on whether or not language capability is innate or is it

acquired from our environment? Bellugi felt that if ASL is a true language then our ability

for language must be built in at birth, whether we express it with our mouth or our hands.

Linguistics has always had the rule that all natural languages words are arbitrary. In

English there is no relation between the sound of the word ?dog? and a dog itself, and a

word that sounds as its name like ?slurp? are very rare. Likewise, if ASL follows the same

principles, its words should not be pictures. But ASL does have many words with

obvious meanings. According to Lou, ?In ASL, ?tree? is an arm upright from the elbow,

representing a trunk, with the fingers spread to show the crown.? Bellugi had a toddler at

the age of two and her mom come in to the research lab and observe the toddler?s

behavior. When the deaf toddler would point at her torso it meant ?I? and when she

would point at the mother?s torso it meant ?you?. Just like the non-deaf child the deaf

child would get confused with pronouns such as ?you? and ?I?. Bellugi found that deaf

toddlers have no trouble pointing. Although pointing a finger in ASL is linguistic, not


Most linguists accepted sign languages as natural languages by the 1980?s. They

saw American Sign Language as powerful and as spoken ones. When comparing sign

language to words spoken verbally, there are many similarities in wordplay and poetry.

Signer create handshapes and movements to give meaningful puns, just like any other

language. ?A typical pun in sign language goes like this: a fist near the forehead and a flip

of the index finger upward means that one understands. But if the little finger flipped, it?s

a joke meaning one understands a little? (Marmor 120). A man by the name of Clayton

Valli has done extensive research on poetry in ASL. Valli found that repetition of hand

shape provides rhyming, while meter occurs in the timing and type of movement. When

doing research at the American Theatre of the Deaf Valli found that when using sign

language in poetry and theatre, some people did it with a much more freer movement than

normal signing. With others, he found that rhythm and tempo were more of their

concerns, as opposed to spatial considerations. The way in which sign language is

performed gives great opportunity for researchers to study the brain along with language.

?Spoken languages are produced by largely unobservable movements of the vocal

apparatus and received through the brain?s auditory system. ASL, by contrast, is delivered

through highly visible movements of the arms, hands and face, and is received through the

brain?s visual system? (Marmor 128). This gives researchers a better understanding on

how to go about testing different areas of the biological basis of language. As we all

know the left hemisphere of the brain controls language, while the right hemisphere

controls visual space. Researchers knew that sign language was expressed spatially, but

were unsure as to where they might be centered. In order to find out the researchers

studied lifelong deaf signers who had suffered brain damage as adults. After the damage

had occurred in their left hemisphere, the signers could shrug, point, shake their heads and

make other gestures, but they lost the ability to sign. On the other hand, signers with

right-hemisphere damage signed as well as ever, but spatial arrangements confused them.

An example of this is that one of the subjects with damage to her right hemisphere

couldn?t perceive anything to her left. Although her visual spacing was not functioning

properly this person was able to sign perfectly with both sides of the body. This showed

the researchers in this study that language is for sure centered in the left hemisphere. As

expected, through research they found that learning American Sign Language has an

advantage over verbal languages. Through a test of showing children a moving light

tracing pattern in space, then asking the kids to draw what they saw, researchers found

that the deaf kids were way ahead of the hearing kids.

New findings on ASL support the efforts of linguists such as Bob Johnson.

Johnosn wants there to be education for the deaf beginning at infancy. ?Research by

Helen Neville, at the Salk Institute, shows that children must learn a language -any

language-during their first five years or so, before the brain?s neural connections are

locked in place, or risk permanent linguistic impairment. What suffers is the ability to

learn grammar? (Liddell 199). As the child becomes more mature, his or her brain

organization becomes more rigid. When the child hits puberty it is almost complete. This

is why Johnson is so concerned, because most deaf children do not begin learning sign

language until late. Just being around deaf people alone has significant benefits and most

of the children that are deaf parent?s can hear and are not familiar with ASL. Johnson

notes that more than 90 percent of all deaf children have hearing parents. The deaf

children that have deaf parents have the luxury learning the language from a very young

age when it is most efficient to learn. According to Liddell the average deaf 12th-grader

reads at the 4th-grade level. This is why Johnson is wanting the children to begin to learn

ASL in the crib, and schools teaching ASL. He believes through research that if English is

the second language and ASL is taught first, then the students will learn English easier.

Only six of the hundreds of school for the death are moving toward ASL-based

instruction. The majority of deaf children are in mainstream school being taught by

teachers that are not fluent in sign language.

American Sign Language is a living language that is still evolving. A sociolinguist

named James Woodward studied ASL by observing it at a deaf school. He said he saw a

great variation in the way people signed. Woodward later began to focus on social and

ethnic dialects of ASL. He found that people in the south would use older forms of ASL

than people in the north. He specifically found that southern blacks use the oldest form of

ASL. Just as I learned in one of my linguistic courses language changes over time. That

does not differ with ASL. An example of this is the sign for ?home? use to mean ?eat.? It

has now evolved into two taps on the cheek. Another way that ASL has changed is where

the signs take place, to keep them easy to understand. Signs formerly made at the center

of the face moved toward its outside. This way its not only easier to see the signs, but its

also easier to see the facial expression, which a crucial part of understanding sign

language. The face is usually where an ASL user focuses, using their peripheral for the

hand signs.

One thing I did not know about ASL is how important the facial expressions are.

Signers will use certain facial expressions as grammatical markers. These different

grammatical markers range from pursed lips to the expression that results from making the

sound ?th.? This is one aspect of ASL that would seem to be extremely hard for an

observer to pick up on. One example of how facial and body movement can result

changing a sentence, is when the signer tilts his head forward and raises his eyebrows

while signing. By doing this the signer makes the sentence a question. If the person also

makes the ?th? expression while signing, then this changes the verb with an adverb.

Woodward believes that these slight changes were never noticed because the deaf people

will sign like this to each other, but sign more of the English-like to people that can hear.

The reason for this is because the deaf are an extremely close group that are very cautious

about letting outsiders into their circle. Woodward believes this is important to the deaf

community because it helps them maintain ?social identity and group solidarity.?

The ability to use sign language and having it as your primary language has

benefits other than communicating. Some of these advantages are being able to recognize

different objects. The deaf have an easier time at distinguishing whether or not an object

is the same, but rotated in space, than someone capable of hearing. Researchers have also

found that deaf are able to distinguish faces better than non-deaf.

I would now like to shift gears and focus on the structure of ASL and the

distinctions between it and a language spoken verbally. As we know, ASL is not a manual

representation of English, with individual signs giving meaning of English words.

Although, ?ASL is a complete language, with all the properties of other languages of the

world, but one that has evolved independently of, and separately from, English?

(Nakamura 2). When looking at the different linguistic aspects of ASL we find many

distinctions between it and other languages. ?First of all, the phonology of spoken

language involves the use of the vocal organs to produce vowels and consonants that are

structured in ways to constitute salient input to the auditory system? (Luetke 232). Being

a linguistic student, and writing to a linguistic professor, we are both aware of the

different why sounds are classified in speech, although I was not familiar with the four

basic articulatory parameters involved in ASL. The four parameters are ?hand

configuration, or shape of each hand. (There are about 40 distinct handshapes). Place of

articulation, or the area on the signer?s body where the sign is produced. (There are about

20 distinct locations). Orientation of the articulators, or the orientation of the hand in

relation to the body. (There are about 10 distinct orientations). Movement, or the motion

of the hands from one point to another in the signing space? (Friedman 947). I was

amazed to find that there were so many distinctive characteristics from a phonological

standpoint in ASL. With this complex of parameters, I feel the deaf for sure should be

taught ASL within the first five years of their life.

The next linguistic aspect that differs between ASL and English is the

morphological process. The morphological process of English form and change words by

adding prefixes or suffixes to a word. ?The process of adding prefixes or suffixes occurs

in sequential, or linear, fashion. For example, tense is marked by adding an inflection to

the end of the word, or word class can occur by adding a suffix to the end of the word?

(Gee 301). ASL morphology works different than English. According to Gee, ?ASL

morphology is organized in a simultaneous rather than sequential fashion. That is, rather

than adding prefixes or suffixes that extend the length of a word, ASL morphology

operates by nesting the sign stem within dynamic movement contours. These movement

contours are no affixed to the beginning or end of the sign stem, but rather occur

simultaneously within the sign. For example, a slower, single movement is associated with

a particular set of verbs, whereas a faster, repetitive movement is associated with nouns?

(Gee 313). By the looks of ASL morphology, it seems as if the signers would be able to

communicate just as effectively and efficiently as an English speaker.

The next aspect of linguistics that separates ASL from English is the syntax. The

syntax in English is of course subject-verb-object. ASL has a S-V-O word order, but it

does not always occur. ?Sign order in ASL is more variable than English word order, and

it is governed by grammatical facial expressions, spatial syntax, and other nonmanual

behaviors? (Fischer 14). The first example of this that comes to mind from previous

chapters is the use of facial expression. What I mean by this is facial expression and head

positioning can be used to change word order by putting the strongest emphasized part of

the sentence first. This is what Fischer is referring to when he says, ?This grammatical

phenomenon is called topicalization, and it allows a signer to highlight the central idea of a

sentence by positioning the most important information at the beginning of a sentence?

(Fischer 15). Therefore, ASL does not always have S-V-O sentences. There sentences

seem to be more situation dependent, instead of always having a standardized rule to abide


Familiarizing myself with all aspects of American Sign Language has been an

educational experience. I was interested in researching the controversial issues on

whether or not ASL was considered a natural language or not. I also enjoyed reading

about the research of people on how the hand placement affects grammar. There are

many different parts of ASL that I was unaware of. One of these is how important facial

expressions are to the signers. I thought their main focus would be on the hands, but they

rely on their peripheral vision for that. The research I did correlated to what I personally

experienced with the my classmate. When I observed her she was very athletic and

talented. She also had a very fast reflex time when we would do testing in labs. In my

research findings I learned that signers have an advantage over non-deaf at recognizing

faces and distinguishing objects in space. Lastly, I found the comparison between ASL

and English to be interesting. I thought this was interesting because I feel as if I have a

good understanding of English and linguistics, but I was my primary focus was comparing

it to ASL. When taking this course in linguistics I thought the syntax of the English

language was complex. I now see that ASL syntax is probably just as complex. The

reason why I think ASL?s syntax complexity is equivalent to English?s syntax is because

there is no set pattern like S-V-O, therefore it becomes situation dependent. Unlike

listening to someone in English, ASL requires much attention. You cannot put it on

auto-pilot while someone is signing to you, like you can in English. This assignment has

opened my eyes to entire different language and has given me more motivation to learn


Ayers, Robert. ?Signs and manual communication systems: selection, standardization, and

development.? American Annals of the Deaf 142 (July ?97): 90-105.

Fischer, Scott. ?Influences on word order change in American Sign Language.? Word

order and word order change 86 (1993): 1-25.

Friedman, L.A. ?Space, time, and person reference in American Sign Language.?

Language 51 (1975): 940-961.

Gee, John P, and William Goodhart. ?Nativization, linguistic theory, and deaf language

acquisition.? Sign Language Studies 49 (1985): 291-342.

Liddell, Stephan. ?American Sign Language: The phonological base.? Sign Language

Studies 64 (1989): 195-277.

Lou, M.W. The history of language use in education of the deaf in the United States.

New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Luetke-Stahlman, B. ?The benefit of oral English-only as compared with signed input to

hearing-impaired students.? Volta Review 90 (1988): 349-361.

Marmor, Greg. ?Simultaneous communication in the classroom: How well is English

grammar represented?? Sign Language Studies 23 (1979): 99-136.

Nakamura, Karen. ?About American Sign Language.? American Annals of the Deaf 145

(September ?97): 80-96.

Oaks, Dallin D. Linguistics at Work: A Reader of Applications. Ft. Worth: Harcourt

Brace & Company, 1998.

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