American Sign Language, or ASL, is 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.
- Language and Linguistics – Sign Language : An article on the National Science Foundation website that explains sign languages and why they matter.
- Phonological Variation in American Sign Language: Two Hands or One? : A report on the difference in ASL phonology in terms of one or two-handed signing.
- Sign Language Linguistics : A brief overview of the linguistics of ASL. It explains how ASL developed and how it differs from sign languages of other countries. The grammatical differences between ASL and English are also discussed.
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.
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.
- Grammar, Gesture, and Meaning in American Sign Language : A PDF on ASL as a language and using proper grammar. Information on this page is helpful for learning how to form sentences when signing.
- Prosody and Syntax in Sign Languages : This article discusses the difference between prosody and syntax in sign language.
- American Sign Language: Grammar : This page shows the viewer how to put together sentences in sign language. The page reviews important guidelines for sentences and expresses the difference between ASL and spoken English.
- American Sign Language Syntax : This is a PDF document. It reviews the principles of sentence structure in ASL using non-manual markers and word order.
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).
- Historical Development of the Definition of Transliteration : This is a article that discusses translating and its history. It also reviews information about the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID).
- NCIEC: Professional Sign Language Interpreting – What is Interpreting : This page explains in detail about the history and foundation for sign language transliteration. It provides useful examples and diagrams.
- Intermediary Interpreters (Certified Deaf Interpreters) – Definitions of Interpreters : This page explains to the reader what the difference is between an intermediary interpreter and a qualified interpreter.
- Interpreting and RID Overview : The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf gives an overview of Interpreting as a career. This page explains the art of interpreting and also what it takes to become an interpreter.
- Discover Interpreting: Choosing a School : Readers interested in interpreting for the deaf will learn about what to look for in terms of education and choosing the right school. The page discusses choosing a Bachelor’s degree versus an Associate degree and programs.