American Sign Language: What You Need To Know And Why It’s Unique

American sign language

Today I’m delighted to feature a guest post from Kristine about American Sign Language (ASL).

You’ll learn about:

  • What ASL is and how it developed
  • 5 common misconceptions people have about ASL
  • Some similarities between ASL and English
  • How learning ASL is different from learning English

Here’s Kristine…


What Is American Sign Language (ASL)?

ASL, short for American Sign Language, is the sign language most commonly used in, you guessed it, the United States and Canada.

Approximately 250,000 – 500,000 people of all ages throughout the US and Canada use this language to communicate as their native language. ASL is the third most commonly used language in the United States, after English and Spanish.

Contrary to popular belief, ASL is not representative of English nor is it some sort of imitation of spoken English that you and I use on a day-to-day basis. For many, it will come as a great surprise that ASL has more similarities to spoken Japanese and Navajo than to English.

When we discuss ASL or any other type of sign language, we are referring to what is called a visual-gestural language. The “visual” component refers to the use of body movements versus sound.

Because “listeners” must use their eyes to “receive” the information, this language was specifically created to be easily recognized by the eyes. The “gestural” component refers to the body movements or “signs” that are performed to convey a message.

A Brief History Of ASLASL fingerspelling

ASL is a relatively new language, which first appeared in the 1800s with the founding of the first successful American School for the Deaf by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.

With strong roots in French Sign Language, ASL evolved to incorporate the signs students would use in less formal occasions such as in their home or within the deaf community.

As students graduated from the American School for the Deaf, some went on to open up their own schools, passing along this evolving American Sign Language as the contact language for the deaf in the United States.

Is There A Universal Sign Language?

There is no universal language for the deaf – all over the world, different sign languages have developed that vary from one another.

A spoken English speaker from the USA, for example, can generally understand someone from another English speaking nation such as England or Australia.

But with sign language, someone who signs using American Sign language would not be able to understand someone who signs using British Sign Language (BSL) or even Australian Auslan.

5 Common Misconceptions About ASL

Like any foreign language, ASL falls victim to many misconceptions among those who have not explored the language.

Because of the word ‘American’ in its name, many assume it shares the same qualities as English and is simply a representation of English using hands and gestures.

However, this is not the case. Let’s take a look at 5 of the most common misconceptions about ASL:

Misconception #1: ASL Is “English On The Hands”

As you’ve probably realised by now, ASL actually has little in common with spoken English, nor is it some sort of signed representation of English words.

ASL was formed independently of English and has its own unique sentence structure and symbols for various words and ideas.

The key features of ASL are:

  • hand shape
  • palm orientation
  • hand movement
  • hand location
  • gestural features like facial expression and posture

When English is used through fingerspelling, hand motions represent the English alphabet to spell words in English, but this is not actually a part of ASL. Rather, it’s a separate element of signed communication.

Misconception #2: ASL Is Shorthand

Another common misconception about ASL is that it is some form of shorthand, or rapid communication by means of abbreviations and symbols.

This misconception arises due to the fact that ASL does not have a written component.

To call ASL shorthand is sorely incorrect, as ASL is a complex language system with its own set of linguistic components.

Misconception #3: ASL Is Most Like British Sign Language

Although the United States and the United Kingdom share spoken English as their predominant language, American Sign Language and British Sign Language vary greatly.

In fact, American Sign Language has its roots in French Sign Language, while British Sign Language has had a greater influence on the development of Australian Auslan and New Zealand Sign Language.

Misconception #4: ASL Is Finger Spelling

In ASL, fingerspelling is reserved for borrowing words from the English language for proper nouns and technical terms with no ASL equivalent.

For example, fingerspelling can be used for people’s names, places, titles, and brands.

When fingerspelling is used in ASL, it’s done using the American Fingerspelled Alphabet. This alphabet has 22 handshapes, that, when held in certain positions or movements represent the 26 letters of the English alphabet.

Misconception #5: Lip Reading Is An Effective Alternative To Learning Sign Languagelip read

It’s estimated that only 30% of English can be read on the lips by the deaf.

Lip reading is also not an effective because it’s a one-way method of communication.

It’s very unlikely that the speaker will be nearly as skilled at lip reading as those who are fluent in ASL, as learning to lip read well can take years upon years of practice.

This means that lip reading is not an effective method for two-way communication.

How Is Learning ASL Similar To Learning English?

Now that we’ve cleared up some of the misconceptions about ASL, let’s look at some of the similarities that ASL and English do share:

Both English And ASL Are Natural Languageschildren american sign language

Both ASL and English are defined as “natural languages” meaning they were created and spread through people using them, without conscious planning or premeditation.

Artificial languages, on the other hand, are communication systems which have been consciously created or invented and do not develop and change naturally.

Some artificial systems that were invented for deaf children include:

  • lip reading
  • cued speech
  • signed English
  • manually coded English.

With any natural language, immersion is the surest way to ensure fluency and American Sign Language is no different.

This means surrounding yourself with the ASL/Deaf community to help expose yourself to the context, culture, behaviours, and grammatical rules of the language.

Both ASL And English Activate The Same Area Of The Brain

When an ASL signer sees and processes an ASL sentence, the same part of the brain – the left hemisphere – is activated as when an English speaker listens to or reads an English sentence.

This is because even though language exists in different forms, all of them are based on symbolic representation. These symbols can visual or aural but they are still processed in the same part of the brain.

Both Require Building Words To Form Sentences

Signed languages have similar grammatical characteristics as spoken languages.

Just as sounds are linked to form syllables and words in a spoken language, signs can be built through various gestures and hand shapes, positions, and movements.

ASL has the same basic set of word types as spoken English does, including nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, and adverbs.

How Is Learning ASL Different To Learning English?sign language interpreter

In this article, I’ve compared many of the similarities between ASL and English, but how do the two differ for those trying to learn them?

Visual Language vs. Auditory Language

The first and most obvious difference between learning ASL and English is the medium you use for your learning – your eyes or your ears.

This may help to make ASL easier for people who are visual learners.

Similarly, if you are more of an auditory learner, you will probably find learning English or other spoken languages easier to pick up than sign language.

ASL Requires Gestural Movements Never Used In Spoken Language

Learning how to communicate through ASL and other sign languages requires a movement of body parts that most spoken-language speakers may not be used to.

These gestures include hand, arm, eye, and even facial expressions.

Just like the sounds of a new spoken language can take some getting used to for beginners, these gestures can be challenging for new learners of sign language to pick up.

ASL Is More Conceptual Than Spoken Languages

When making a connection between a sign and its intended meaning in ASL, it can be easier to comprehend the word’s meaning than in a spoken language.

For example, in ASL, the word “book” is signed with both hands gesturing the opening of a book.

The word “book” in English, however, does not conjure such an image. You either know what it means or you don’t and it’s hard to guess if you’re not sure.

Not all signs look like what they’re representing, but these conceptual connections are definitely more common than in spoken language.

ASL, because it’s visual, is a deeply conceptual language.

Because of this, the object of the sentence is signed first. For example, the English statement “The boy skipped home” would be reordered in ASL, starting with ‘home’ and then introducing the boy skipping.

ASL Has A Different Word Order Than English

As an English-speaker learning ASL, you may find the word order a bit tricky to get used to.

In ASL, how you assemble sentences following a different pattern, based on content.

When using indirect objects in ASL, you place the object right after the subject and then show the action. Let’s look at an example:

  • English: The boy throws a frisbee
  • ASL: Boy — frisbee — throw

Tenses Are Represented Differently In ASL

In English, verbs are changed to show their tense, using the suffixes -ed, -ing and -s.

In ASL, tenses are shown differently.

Rather than conjugating the verbs, tense is established with a separate sign.

To represent the present tense, no change is made to the signs.

However, to sign past tense, you sign “finish” at chest level either before or after you finish your sentence.

Signing the future tense is quite similar to signing past tense. It’s indicated with a sign either before or at the end of the sentence as well as by adding “will” at the end of the sentence.

One interesting difference in the future tense, however, is that how far away from your body you sign the word “will” indicates how far in the future the sentence is.

As you can see, learning ASL is quite similar to learning any natural language.

Are You Thinking Of Learning ASL?

Every language has its own set of rules and grammar and ASL is no different.

While these rules and grammar are different are quite different from what we’re used to in English, they’re not particularly difficult to learn.

Like any language, getting the hang of ASL simply requires lots of practice and determination. You just need to get started.

If you’re currently thinking about learning a new language, you should consider giving ASL a try. I think you’ll find that it’s not only a fun and interesting language to learn but an incredibly enjoyable one too.


Are you interested in learning ASL or another form of sign language? Why do you want to learn sign language and what signs or topics do you most want to learn about? Let us know in the comments below!

This is a guest post by Kristine Thorndyke. Kristine is an English teacher who believes in improving lives through education. When she’s not teaching, you can find her creating helpful resources for standardized testing at Test Prep Nerds.

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