Family Health Reference To American Sign Language (ASL)

Our family health reference to American Sign Language (ASL) includes general information about how to form sentences, the ASL alphabet, and more. Our reference to ASL comes with videos and helpful links from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, the National Science Foundation, and more that will help you and your family better communicate with the deaf community.

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Natasha McLachlan is a writer who currently lives in Southern California. She is an alumna of California College of the Arts, where she obtained her B.A. in Writing and Literature. Her current work revolves around insurance guides and informational articles. She truly enjoys helping others learn more about everyday, practical matters through her work.

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Laura Walker graduated college with a BS in Criminal Justice with a minor in Political Science. She married her husband and began working in the family insurance business in 2005. She became a licensed agent and wrote P&C business focusing on personal lines insurance for 10 years. Laura serviced existing business and wrote new business. She now uses her insurance background to help educate...

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Reviewed by Laura Walker
Former Licensed Agent

UPDATED: Nov 30, 2020

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American Sign Language, or ASL, is a language that is used by deaf individuals, their families, friends, and interpreters. It is a complex visual language in which people communicate using their body, face and, most recognizably, their hands. It is a language unto itself and should not be mistaken as a form of English.

People who are learning sign language must familiarize themselves with the proper grammar associated with it, just as they would with any other language.

ASL is only one of many different forms of sign language used around the world. It is the sign language that is used primarily in the United States and in parts of Canada. To some degree, ASL may also be used to teach babies to communicate before they are able to speak.

Linguistics of Sign

ASL was first recognized as a language by an English teacher named William Stokoe in 1965. As a language it has its own rules, just as oral languages have their own unique set of rules.

The study of sign language, including ASL is known as sign linguistics. It typically involves four basic levels, or studies.

Two of these studies are the study of meaning, or semantics, and pragmatics, which is the study of language’s use and how it affects the meaning.

Another area of study is phonology. Phonology in terms of American Sign Language includes five main parameters. These are handshapes, movement, palm orientation, location, and other markers that are non-manual markers.

Morphology is also a part of linguistic study. Morphology includes the study of morphemes, which are meaningful units of language that cannot be shortened into meaningful units that are smaller. Morphemes may be free or bound.

In addition, sign linguistics also involves the study of syntax and movement-hold.

Learning the Alphabet and Numbers

As with oral language, one of the first things that a person learns is their alphabet and numbers. Although it is a good way to start learning sign language, the alphabet is not used in the same way as English and other oral languages. With English the alphabet is used to spell out words. With ASL, signs are generally used to convey words, not letters. When learning the alphabet and numbers, practice is helpful, as are images or illustrations that demonstrate the signed letter or number.

  • ASL letters and numbers : A page that contains two charts illustrating how to sign letters and numbers from 1-10. The top illustrates signing the alphabet and the bottom chart illustrates how to sign numbers.
  • ABC’s of ASL : Photographs of the alphabet in American sign language.
  • Fun Facts About American Sign Language : The second page of this PDF document discusses learning sign language. The focus on the page is learning the alphabet and numbers. Both numbers and letters are illustrated around the border of the page.
  • Basic Medical Sign Language : This PDF illustrates and explains how to properly form the alphabet and numbers in ASL. The document also shows common phrases used in a medical setting.
  • Signs of Life PDF : This PDF explains the importance of first responders knowing how to sign. Two pages in the PDF show how to fingerspell numbers and the alphabet.

Forming Sentences

ASL has its own rules when it comes to putting sentences together. Grammar and syntax often differ, just as they would for any other language. An English-speaking person must keep this in mind when forming sentences using sign language as she or he would not be able to properly translate it word for word. When forming sentences, facial expression is a contributing factor.

Popular Phrases

There are hundreds of phrases in ASL. When learning the language, a person may choose to first learn some of the more popular, or commonly used phrases. These may be popular phrases that are used in general conversation, or in some cases, a person may learn phrases that are helpful in his or her line of work. For example, a paramedic may choose to learn phrases that may help him or her communicate with and assess the injuries of a person in an emergency situation. In teaching babies ASL, popular phrases may be ones that will best help the child to express his or her basic needs.

  • Sign Language Phrases : A page that lists numerous phrases for the reader to click on. When clicked the phrase takes the reader to a video illustrating the correct way to sign the phrase.
  • Baby Sign Language: Key Phrases : A video that demonstrates popular sign language phrases to teach babies.

Interpreting for the Deaf

Interpreting for the deaf involves translating English using American Sign Language. It is also a potential career option for people who are fluent in both English and ASL. Interpreters are needed in the government, medical situations, law, education, and in businesses. Educational requirements and eligibility to work as an interpreter vary by state. In some cases, a license may be necessary or screening by the state. National certification is also available through the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID).

photo by: gfpeck

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