What Is American Sign Language?
Simply put, American Sign Language is the native language of the Deaf Community of the United States and much of Canada. One of the most common misconceptions about American Sign Language (ASL) is that it is actually English and simply uses signs to represent spoken words. Related to this, many people think that ASL is “poor English” or “broken English.” While there are various signing systems that attempt to represent English manually (known as Manually Coded English or MCE), American Sign Language is not among them. ASL is, in fact, a full, rich language with its early roots primarily in ‘langue des signes française’ (French Sign Language or LSF), not English. Just as English came from and has been influenced by other languages, ASL also has its historical roots in several different languages and communication systems (including, but by no means primarily, English). But, today, ASL is an independent language with its own vocabulary, idioms, grammar etc.
A second common misconception is that ASL is a universal language of the deaf around the world. While ASL has influenced deaf people around the world, there are numerous different signed languages. ASL is primarily used in the United States and Canada, but ASL is also not used by all deaf people in these areas. There are deaf people whose primary method of communication is one of the MCE systems, Cued Speech and even spoken English/lip reading. Deaf individuals who consider themselves culturally Deaf, however, use ASL as their primary language. The exception to this is in parts of Canada where the sign language is much closer to LSF.
As with all languages, there are also regional variations in ASL that result in ‘dialects’ or ‘accents’. ASL in California looks somewhat different than it does in Washington D.C., for example. Native users can still understand each other fairly easily, however. Regional variation is more of a challenge for students of ASL than it is for native users. In much the same way, native speakers of English who grew up in the northern United States can typically understand people from the South, and most native speakers who grew up in different English-speaking countries understand each other with relatively little difficulty; these ‘accents’ can, however, sound VERY different to non-native speakers. In addition to the regional dialects of ASL, there is also a dialect called Black American Sign Language, which grew out of the era of segregation (where Deaf children were sent to different schools based upon the color of their skin).
Like all living languages, ASL has changed and continues to change over time. If you grew up using a spoken language, the way you speak is probably somewhat different from the way your grandparents, or even parents, spoke. While it is the same language, you use it differently than native speakers of other generations do (this is particularly obvious to adults who have ever tried to have a conversation with a teenager). You can still understand each other (most of the time), but your word choice, and sometimes even your grammatical usage is somewhat different. This is true of ASL as well. The language has changed gradually over time (and continues to do so) – all languages do.