American Sign Language - More Than Just Hands

by Weronika Lass

American Sign Language (ASL) is easily the most popular sign language of deaf communities in the United States, but also the anglophone part of Canada, West Africa or even Southeast Asia. ASL grew out of the French Sign Language, which was created around 1755. ASL itself originated at the American School for the Deaf established by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet in 1817.

As more schools for the deaf were founded across the states, ASL spread and thanks to the development of nationwide organizations, such as the National Association for the Deaf or the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf, the language started to be used over a very wide geographic area - something that's generally untypical for sign languages.

One popular misconception is that ASL is basically English, but translated into signs. That's simply not true - ASL is a complex natural language that should be treated as a separate linguistic compound. Still, ASL differs from spoken languages - it doesn't have a written form and it's purely visual.

Read on to find out the basics of ASL, clear up some popular misconceptions about this sign language and see what this remarkably popular sign language is really about.

Signing a language

People who don't speak a sign language usually assume that it's just about the hand gestures - if you want to say 'house' you just form your hands into a roof and that's the end of story. ASL isn't a charade - the language features lots of abstract words like 'if' or 'since', which have specific gestures ascribed to them by convention.

Apart from hand movements and gestures, there are many other factors that influence the final meaning of a message transmitted through ASL.

First, there's the position. If you look only at the hands and how they move, you'll be surprised to find out that the signs for man and woman look very similar. Seeing those signs in their context, you'll immediately note that while male words tend to be signed close to your forehead, female signs usually hover around the chin. One sign can mean very different things depending on where it was signed in reference to the signer's body.

Second, there's the direction your dominant had is pointing to. Depending on whether your hand points up, down, left, right, to or away from your body, you'll create a different meaning.

Third, there are the facial expressions that convey the core message. In order to ask various kinds of questions, signers will assume different expressions - for instance, eyebrows put together or raised. When asking a yes/no type of question, the signer will raise their eyebrows and tilt their head down a little to accentuate the question. WH-questions like why?, what? and where? are signed with eyebrows together, and head tilted to a side.

As you can see, there's far more to ASL than you'd suspect. Read on for some basic details on ASL grammar.

Word order and word formation

Word order in ASL can be tricky. When asking one of those WH-questions, for instance 'What is your name?', in ASL you'll need to move the word to the very end of the sentence and say something like this: 'Your name what?'.

Some people try to sign word for word in English, but this approach is based on the popular misconception that ASL is based on English. Many aspects of ASL differ form English language like its grammar or syntax, so translating what you say in English word by word into ASL isn't a good approach. It basically sounds as if you were going for a word-by-word translation of English into German.

When it comes to word formation, ASL offers several smart techniques for creating words. A person doing a specific work can be formed by adding a suffix '-er' to the sign signifying the activity, for instance writer is composed of two signs: a sign for 'write' and a sign for '-er'.

Not every word has a sign attached to it and many of them might not be known to all users of ASL - and that's where finger-spelling comes in. Some people claim that finger-spelling is more common in ASL than in any other sign language - the vast majority of signers would be able to spell a word very fast if you asked them to.

About 10% of ASL is made up of alphabet and singers usually use letters to spell names of people, titles of books or movies, name brands, as well as names of cities or countries.

Best strategies for learning ASL

Because ASL is essentially visual and very interactive, the best way of learning it is not by studying movement charts, but by actually using it in conversations with other people. There are many aspects of the language that can be easily communicated visually - if you tried the same by means of a written instruction, it would take ages to arrive at correct gestures.

When learning ASL, it's best to first focus on a certain group of signs, perfect them in conversations and then move on to another group of signs. Trying to learn many signs at once will be too difficult in the context of this spatio-visual language. Try to participate in sign conversations and follow them closely, showing that you're actively listening to and seeing what other signer communicates - nod and respond with 'really' or 'huh'.

Learners of ASL should remember to always look at signers in their totality - body language, hands, facial expressions are all important components of communication. After a period of observation, you'll be able to instantly tell whether the person is asking a question or expressing an indicative phrase.

If your native language is English, you'll have a natural tendency to translate it into ASL. This approach will be further powered by the fact that so many people are convinced that ASL is a variety of English. Leave your mother tongue outside the conversation. If you don't understand a sign, don't panic - with enough practice, repetition and context you'll soon get the hang of it.

ASL - a language for everyone?

Finally, to think of ASL as a collection of a few gestures is a huge mistake. If you think your can become an interpreter after taking just a few lessons of ASL, you're completely wrong - it takes around 8-10 years in order to become completely fluent in the language and finish a selection of courses that allow you to work as an interpreter.

All in all, ALS is a very interesting example of widespread sign language used by more than 500,000 people all over the world - if your friends or family are using it, there's nothing standing in your way to join in the conversation and learn this practical sign language. As you can imagine, learning other sign languages will become easier once you perfect your ASL skills.

The article was contributed by Weronika Lass of

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