So you want to learn American Sign Language. Exciting! Congratulations on beginning this journey into a new language, culture, and community. We're here to provide you with resources to kickstart your learning -- teaching you not only sign vocabulary, but also basic sentence structures and facial expression guidelines.
What is American Sign Language?
Sign language is "the noblest gift God has given to Deaf people" (George Veditz, former NAD President).
ASL stands for American Sign Language is a full-fledged visual language, with complex morphological and grammatical structures equivalent to that of any spoken language. ASL is the sign language used by members of the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community in North America (in the US and Canada).
Yes, that's right: sign language is not universal! Different regions and countries each have their own sign languages that are not mutually intelligible. In fact, even America and England have distinct sign languages, even though both countries speak varieties of English.
How did ASL come to be?
ASL traces its roots back to two sources: a Deaf community on Martha's Vineyard and the Old French Sign Language brought over to America by Deaf teacher Laurent Clerc.
Dating back to the 1600s, sign language existed in America. The earliest sign language was used by a population of people on Martha's Vineyard, a Massachusetts island. There was an unusually high rate of deafness among settlers there, and, as a result, sign language thrived and was used by both hearing and Deaf people alike. For more information on the Deaf history of Martha's Vineyard, I recommend the well-researched book Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha's Vineyard by Nora Ellen Groce.
American Sign Language really formed and spread after the founding of America's oldest permanent school for the deaf. In 1817, Thomas Gallaudet, Mason Cogswell, and Laurent Clerc (among others in the community) founded what is now called the American School for the deaf (ASD) in Hartford, Connecticut.
For a detailed history on Gallaudet, Clerc, and the Deaf in America, I recommend Harlan Lane's comprehensive book When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf.
Tell me more!
Local Deaf communities in America are often found in large cities, as well as surrounding schools and educational programs for the Deaf.
Today, Gallaudet University is the only liberal arts university for Deaf students, and has become known as the "Deaf Mecca." Located in Washington, D.C., Gallaudet is a thriving campus and environment in which Deaf people are not disadvantaged by their surroundings. All classes, activities, offices, etc., are conducted in American Sign Language; here, visual trumps auditory.
It was at Gallaudet University in March 1988 that the Deaf Community united--first in DC and then worldwide--in the Deaf President Now protest. This was a movement in which Deaf students and faculty claimed their right to govern their own school's affairs, starting with the appointment of a Deaf university president.
Today, the Deaf Community in America remains a proud and connected culture.