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5 Fascinating Facts About American Sign Language (ASL)

American Sign Language (ASL) is a complete language expressed with hand gestures and facial expressions. Thousands of people who are deaf and hard of hearing, as well as many hearing people, use ASL to communicate. Importantly, ASL is not a “code” for English but instead is a unique language with complex grammar rules.

Want to learn more about this interesting language? Keep reading to discover 5 fascinating facts about ASL.

American Sign Language originated in 1817.

The first form of sign language in America was created by Martha’s Vineyard Islanders in the 1700s. Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL) was used by both deaf and hearing residents. However, this language died out in the 1950s.

ASL originated from both MVSL and French Sign Language. In 1817, Thomas Gallaudet and a French educator named Lauren Clerc established the first American school for the Deaf community. Clerc’s French sign language blended with MVSL and other local signs to become ASL. Modern French and American sign languages still share many similarities.

American and British Sign Language are two distinct languages.

Unlike American and British English, ASL and BSL are very different languages. In fact, there are more than 100 unique sign languages in use around the world. BSL likely developed in the 15th century and is one of the oldest sign languages still used today. While some sign languages, like French and American, share similar origins there is no single “universal” sign language.

Fingerspelling is part of ASL.

Fingerspelling is a form of sign language that spells out a word letter by letter with representative hand gestures. The American Manual Alphabet is used in ASL to represent English letters. Each letter is formed from a single hand gesture. However, fingerspelling is not the primary way ASL users communicate and is only used for proper nouns and certain English words with no ASL translation.

Dr. Bill Vicars from The ASL University offers some helpful online resources including sign charts and a tool to help you practice recognizing fingerspelled words.

Time + Topic + Comment + Referent is one way to structure sentences in ASL.

ASL follows a completely different grammar and syntax than American English. Words don’t change tenses in ASL like they do in English. To express when something occurred, ASL users utilize the Time + Topic + Comment + Referent sentence structure. For example, if you wanted to say “I went to the park” you might sign “yesterday park go I.”

Unlike with verbal languages, ASL users can’t utilize tone and inflection to give their words additional meaning. Instead, facial expressions and body language are used in ASL. When signing words in ASL, classifiers can also be used to distinguish size, type, number and movement.

Only two Deaf actors have won Academy Awards.

In 1987, Marlee Matlin became the first Deaf actor to win an Academy Award. Her role in Children of a Lesser God earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress. At the 94th Academy Awards, Troy Kotsur received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for this performance in CODA. With this award, he became only the second member of the Deaf community to receive an Oscar. During his acceptance speech, Troy Kotsur signed while an interpreter translated his words into English in real-time.

CODA also made history as the first movie with a primarily Deaf cast to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. CODA (which stands for “Child of Deaf Adults”) tells the story of Ruby Rossi, the only hearing member of her family, as she balances high school and family life. The movie showcased the challenging dynamics of a hearing daughter trying to find her own identity while also helping interpret for her Deaf parents as they launch their business. The movie is available for streaming on Apple TV and offers insight into the Deaf community.

Now that you’ve learned more about ASL, use these videos to practice signing:

ASL is a thriving language used by both Deaf people and hearing people. It is important to remember that ASL is a unique language and not simply a representation of English words. If you are interested in learning more about ASL, Gallaudet University offers some excellent online resources. This is the only bilingual university where students use both ASL and English. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because this school was named after Thomas Gallaudet who helped develop ASL.

Want to learn about other fascinating languages? Check out the ALTA Beyond Words Blog for more.

Stephanie Brown is a New York City-based travel blogger and freelance content creator.
You can find her at The Adventuring Millennial.

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