Sign Language - American
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Sign Language - American Language
American Sign Language is the official sign language system used by the Deaf community and other hard of hearing individuals in the United States and Canada. Sign language is generally defined as a means of communication through bodily movements, most commonly with the arms and hands.
Today American Sign Language (ASL) is used by more than 500,000 people located in the US and Canada, and it is the fourth-most common language of the United States.
General sign language is most likely even older than basic verbal speech. Before people could speak, they were able to communicate via means of facial expressions and bodily movements like shrugged shoulders and pointing fingers – universal symbols that can still be understood around the world today.
Why Use Sign Language?
Sign language is a form of communication used when it is impossible or undesirable for individuals to communicate verbally.
Today sign language is commonly used as a means of communication used by the Deaf community and other hard of hearing individuals. Sign language may be used for any number of other reasons. For example, it may be used if two individuals are trying to communicate silently or if two people from different linguistic backgrounds want to communicate with one another.
Two of the Earliest Uses of Sign Language
One interesting example of sign language being used in an unexpected way is the case of Meher Baba, an Indian religious figure who took a vow of silence. Although he abstained from speech in the last years of his life, Baba “dictated” a great amount of written material through the use of sign language. He first began by pointing to letters but moved on to develop a system of signed gestures.
Another interesting example of unique uses of sign language is its utility as a communicative tool between Japanese and Chinese speakers.
The Japanese and Chinese writing systems share many characters; however, pronunciation differences between the two languages make them unintelligible in the spoken form. If a Japanese speaker were to say a character aloud, a Chinese speaker would not understand him even though their languages might share the same character. However, it is possible for Chinese and Japanese speakers to communicate by tracing the forms of mutually comprehensible characters on their palms – a rudimentary form of sign language.
Early Use of Sign Language in North America: The Plains Indians
One of the earliest known sign language systems in North America is credited to the Plains Indians of early-19th century America.
The Plains Indians developed a system of manual symbols that allowed individuals from different tribes to communicate with each other. Two fingers straddling the other index finger would represent a person on horseback, for example, while miming the action of brushing long hair would represent a woman.
This system became so familiar to the Plains Indians that they were able to develop it further, combining signs to form complex narratives, convey important messages, and converse with others.
Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language
The book “Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language,” by Nora Ellen Groce, traces the history of sign language in Martha’s Vineyard, an area where hereditary Deafness came to be a common issue by the early 17th century.Due to the large number of hard of hearing individuals in the area, Martha’s Vineyard developed its own unique sign language known as Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL). MVSL most likely played a role in the development of American Sign Language in the early 19th century.
European Development of Sign Language for Use by Deaf and Hard of Hearing
Most early societies considered the Deaf community to be mentally challenged and made no effort to educate them. Although there are a few known cases of people caring for disabled individuals in ancient Greece and Rome, most early societies made no attempt to develop educational systems for the Deaf community or the hard of hearing.
Starting from the Renaissance period, there are records of scattered attempts to teach hard of hearing and Deaf individuals to communicate throughout Europe. Pedro Ponce de Leon, for example, taught Deaf pupils to read, write and speak in mid-1500s Spain, while the Englishman John Bulwer published a book about his experiences teaching the hard of hearing. Similar work was undertaken by other individuals in Spain, France, England and Germany.
Looking to France: Origins of an Official American Sign Language
American Sign Language finds its origins in the French Sign Language (FSL) developed by Abbe Charles-Michel de L’Epee in mid-18th century France. It was L’Epee’s work that served as a true landmark moment in the development of sign language systems.
What set L’Epee’s system apart was that, rather than teaching the hard of hearing to speak orally, his system allowed the individual to spell out single words using a manual alphabet and to express general concepts using simple physical signs.
L’Epee’s contribution to American Sign Language is still acknowledged today. For example, in front of the St. Mary’s School for the Deaf in Buffalo, New York, visitors are greeted by a large statue of L’Epee that was sculpted by an alumnus of the school.
Creating an Official American Sign Language
In 1816 Thomas Gallaudet, the founder of the American School for the Deaf in Connecticut, brought French Sign Language to the United States.
It is likely that the children who attended the American School for the Deaf in these early years brought unique signing systems with them from all over the country, and that modern American Sign Language was a product of the combination of a variety of these systems with the French Sign Language system introduced by Gallaudet.
Sign Language Around the World
Today almost every language in the world has its own system of sign language. The first standard Nicaraguan sign language, for example, was developed after Nicaragua opened its first school for the Deaf in the 1990s. Many sign language systems have followed a path of development similar to that of American Sign Language.
Sign Language - American Translation and Interpreting
Spanish (Latin America)
Sign Language - American Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: ASL, Ameslan
Language Family: Anglophone North America
Spoken by Approximately 2,000,000 people
Spoken In: United States