Sign language is a type of visual communication with the hands, body, and facial expressions used by deaf and hard-of-hearing people. American Sign Language (ASL) is the primary means of communication by a very large portion of thedeaf population in the United States.
ASL has a unique grammar and syntax, unrelated to English (although it reflects English influences). American Sign Language also includes fingerspelling (also known as the manual alphabet) to spell out certain words that do not have a sign, including proper names and technical phrases.
In its true sense, ASL is the patterns used by deaf people when they communicate with sign in a non-English style. Neither articles nor speech are used. Only when American Sign Language differs completely from English is it properly considered true ASL; some people incorrectly use the term "ASL" to includea whole range of manual communication and types of sign languages.
Some deaf people use ASL exclusively, while others use ASL together with Signed English, a less complicated manual system of communication that is used torepresent spoken English. Signed English includes gestures signed in the same word order as English and is often used with speech.
For many years, ASL was not considered a language; critics claimed it did nothave grammatical structure, and warned that it isolated deaf people from thehearing world. Because it was considered "grammatically incorrect" by many educators, it was often forbidden in schools and programs for deaf children. For years, ASL was considered a suppressed language, despite its wide use by the deaf.
Today, linguists agree that ASL is indeed a separate and unique language complete unto itself, with its own grammar and syntax. Many schools and programsfor deaf students advocate its use. However, there is still some resistance among educators about using ASL as a teaching tool. Some fear that it will interfere with the development of English skills, that English skills are imperative if the deaf person is to be able to survive in a hearing world.
In fact, deaf people themselves disagree about ASL. Some find it a source ofpride and an example of cultural identity in the language, but others feel more ambivalent about its use in the wider hearing society.
ASL is not the only form of sign language. Fingerspelling is one method in which handshapes (representing letters) are used to spell out each word of theEnglish language while speaking. It is an unpopular method of communication and is tiring to use and interpret.
Manually coded English systems use fingerspelling but also include signs andmarkers. The most common forms of this system include Signed English and Signing Exact English, which base their signs on ASL but include other aspects ofthe English language. Although this system is often used in schools, it is not used by deaf adults among themselves.
Pidgin Sign English is the system used most often by hearing people learningto communicate with deaf individuals. PSE combines the English language withthe vocabulary and nonmanual features of ASL, and it is the preferred methodof communication by many deaf people.
Other countries have their own sign languages; the best known is French SignLanguage (known in France as "langue des signes Francaise," or LSF). It was first used with deaf students in the 19th century and was the first sign language to earn acceptance as a separate, complete language of its own. Researchsuggests that LSF is grammatically similar to ASL (handshapes, for example, are very much the same).