How Sign Language Works

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History of Sign Language

A student learning sign language through video
A student learning sign language through video

As mentioned in the previous section, French Sign Language is the origin for many of the signs used in ASL. In the early 1800s, a minister to the deaf named Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet traveled from America to Europe to learn teaching techniques. In England, he met Roch-Ambroise Cucurron, Abbé Sicard, the director of a school for the deaf in Paris. Gallaudet learned teaching methods and several signs to use in communication with the deaf and hard of hearing from Abbé Sicard. Gallaudet convinced Laurent Clerc, one of Sicard's students, to help establish a school for the deaf in America.

Gallaudet and Clerc established the American School for the Deaf (ASD) in 1817 in Hartford, Connecticut. The school combined signs from LSF with those that had been in use by the Deaf community in America to create a standardized language. In time, this language evolved into ASL, now considered one of the most comprehensive sign languages in the world. Today, the ASD campus includes elementary, junior high and high schools.

Thomas Gallaudet's son, Edward, founded Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. Gallaudet was the first college for deaf and hard of hearing students. The university offers degree programs in dozens of majors for more than 1,500 students. While most students are deaf or hard of hearing, up to 5 percent of an enrolling class may consist of hearing students. ASL is the official language on campus, though there is controversy among the Deaf community concerning the ASL skill level of the staff and faculty at the university, as well as the institution's perspective on the importance of ASL in general.

Students of ASL do not need to learn speechreading or listening skills to become proficient. ASL has its own grammar, phonology (in spoken languages, phonology is the study of sounds; in sign language, it's the study of the basic hand signals and motions that provide the foundation of all signing), syntax and morphology (in spoken and written languages, morphology studies how words are formed from basic sounds and words; in sign language, it's the way basic hand signals and motions. represent concepts). ASL can be interpreted into any other language. It is not normally written, though there is a system called SignWriting designed to allow speakers of ASL to communicate signs and facial expressions in a written format without translating their thoughts into another language. Learning to read English can be difficult for some deaf people, because ASL and English are not structured the same way. English uses complex rules that aren't applicable to ASL. Not being able to hear the language can also be a major challenge in learning to read.