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American Sign Language

American Sign Language- ASL

American Sign Language- ASL

 American Sign Language is a native language among millions of Deaf and Hard of Hearing people throughout the United States, as well as a few other countries in the world.

Not only is ASL a bona-fide language of some American citizens, it is also taught as a foreign language in a growing number of American schools and universities.

ASL – An Indigenous Language

American Sign Language, or ASL as it is sometimes called, is a unique, native language that originated among Deaf and Hard of Hearing people.

A misconception that exists is the belief that ASL is an “international” or “universal” Sign Language. Though ASL is used in some countries other than the United States, many countries have their own Sign Language just as they have their own spoken languages.

It is sometimes mistakenly thought of as a manual, “hand code” version of the English language. In fact, it’s very different.

ASL is a living, thriving language that continuously changes over time, just like any language of the world. New phrases, expressions, and terms develop — both formal and informal.

ASL also has its own unique grammar, word order and syntax, and vocabulary that differs from English. Whenever you translate one language, you may find that not every word has an exact match for a word in another language. Instead, the translation may take several words to explain the meaning of the message.

In comparison, not every sign in ASL has an exact English word to match it. It’s also true in reverse — not every English word has its own sign. This is just the natural course of language — the language becomes what it is to best suit the people and culture of those who use it.

ASL in Music

American Sign Language is used in the arts, such as in music, poetry, and drama, to name a few. The following YouTube clip shows a music video produced by D-PAN, the Deaf Performing Artists Network:


Differences and Similarities with English

Aside from the grammar and syntax differences already mentioned, it’s important to identify the culture of those who use it. Remember, ASL is a visual language. Naturally, ASL is a language among people who predominantly communicate visually, and share common experiences and perspectives of a visual nature.

Something that ASL has in common with English, or any other spoken language is that it uses “tone”. As hearing people know, speaking verbally doesn’t just involve putting words together to make sentences. There’s an old saying that says, “it’s not what you said, but how you said it”.

Things like tone and inflection can distinguish between a statement and a question. For example, the difference between “he ate the whole pie.” and, “he ate the whole pie?!” is just a matter of how the sentence was spoken. Same words, but different meaning.

Similarly, the ASL language is much more than as assemblage of signs. Aside from the hands, ASL uses the eyes, eyebrows, mouth, facial expressions, body language, etc.

Learning American Sign Language as a Second Language

For most hearing people, it takes a great deal of time, effort, patience, and study to become fluent in American Sign Language, just as it does to learn any other language. Simply learning a vocabulary of many signs greatly falls short of qualifying someone as being fluent, or even proficient in ASL. It also does not qualify someone as being an “interpreter”, which is totally another skill to be mastered, and far from being the same thing as being fluent.

On the other hand, the pursuit of learning ASL as a second language is not a futile effort, especially if one has the dedication and understanding of what ASL is. Becoming a certified ASL interpreter can open many doors to a lifetime of rewarding experiences, and a wonderful career. ASL interpreters serve in a neutral capacity in court cases, educational settings, and interpreting for public speakers, just to name a few.

For example, an interpreter may interpret the message of a hearing speaker to ASL, with Deaf people being in the audience. Or, a Deaf person may be the public speaker, delivering the message in ASL — and with hearing people being in attendance, the interpreter would be “voicing” instead of signing. The interpreter has a role strictly of being an interpreter, not a “helper”.

ASL is and should be respected as an indigenous language of a people-group and culture, therefore the interpreter is provided for the benefit of both parties of both languages, and not for a matter of “social work” for “special needs”.

ASL can be a great educational experience when taught in a foreign language curriculum, by properly trained ASL instructors. From high school all the way through doctorate levels, American Sign Language has been and continues to be an enriching field of study to meet foreign language criteria in the United States.

It is estimated that currently, at least 150 American colleges and universities accept ASL course work for foreign language credits.

Sources: National Association of the Deaf ; Gallaudet University

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