Sign Language

two women sitting on sofa and talking in sign language

Sign language is a rich and diverse form of communication. It enables individuals with hearing impairments to convey thoughts, emotions, and ideas through visual gestures and facial expressions. This profound language has evolved into numerous unique systems worldwide, each with its grammar, syntax, and vocabulary.

Understanding Sign Language

Sign language is a complete and natural language that involves a combination of handshapes, facial expressions, body movements, and spatial references to convey meaning. It is not merely a gestural representation of spoken language; rather, it has its own grammar and syntax, making it a distinct and complex form of communication.

Each country often has its unique version of sign language, known as a national sign language. These languages are essential in fostering communication and inclusion. They have become essential tools in education, social interaction, and cultural expression.

American Sign Language (ASL)

American Sign Language (ASL) is the primary sign language of the Deaf community in the United States and most parts of Canada.

It is a fully developed and recognized language with a complex grammar system, word order, and syntax.

ASL is not a direct translation of spoken English but has its linguistic structure, allowing for nuanced and meaningful communication.

ASL Vocabulary and Grammar

One of the core components of ASL is its extensive vocabulary. Signs are created through handshapes, hand movements, locations, and orientations. There are thousands of unique signs in ASL, allowing for precise communication on a wide range of topics.

ASL also employs facial expressions and body movements to convey emotions and nuances. Non-manual markers, such as raised eyebrows or head tilts, can change the meaning of signs or indicate aspects like questions, negation, or emphasis.

Grammar in ASL is conveyed through word order, facial expressions, and body movements. Unlike spoken English, which uses word order to convey meaning, ASL often relies on spatial references and facial expressions to indicate subject, object, and verb relationships. This aspect of ASL grammar is called “topic-comment” structure.

Differences ASL and Spoken American English

Grammar and Syntax:

a) Word Order: One of the most significant differences between ASL and spoken English lies in their word order. In spoken English, word order is critical for conveying meaning. For example, in English, the sentence “I love you” conveys a very different meaning than “You love me.” However, in ASL, word order is more flexible due to its use of facial expressions, body movements, and spatial references. ASL primarily follows a “topic-comment” structure, where the topic or subject is established, and then the comment or action related to the topic follows. This allows for greater nuance and emphasis in ASL communication.

b) Verb Tenses: ASL does not have the same verb conjugation rules as English. Instead of relying on verb tense markers like “ed” for past tense or “ing” for present progressive tense, ASL often uses time indicators, facial expressions, and body movements to indicate the time frame of an action. For example, to convey “I will go,” a signer may use a future time indicator and a directional sign for “go.”

c) Pronouns: ASL pronouns are usually more specific and often rely on pointing to indicate the person being referred to. For example, to express “he” or “she,” a signer would point to the appropriate location in signing space. In contrast, spoken English pronouns are typically more general and do not require pointing for clarity.

d) Negation: In spoken English, negation is often conveyed using the word “not” (e.g., “I do not like that”). In ASL, negation is typically expressed through facial expressions, head shaking, or specific handshapes and movements.


a) Iconicity: ASL is known for its iconicity, which means that some signs visually represent the objects or actions they describe. For instance, the sign for “eat” may involve a hand bringing food to the mouth. This aspect of ASL allows for more visual and expressive communication.

b) Regional Variations: Like spoken languages, ASL also exhibits regional variations, with some signs having different meanings or being unique to certain areas. ASL signs can even differ between English-speaking countries, such as the United States and Canada.

c) Conceptual Nature: ASL vocabulary often reflects the visual and spatial nature of the language. For example, signs may represent the shape, size, or movement of an object, rather than solely its name.

Cultural and Linguistic Identity:

a) Identity and Culture: ASL is an integral part of Deaf culture and identity. For many Deaf individuals, ASL is their first language, and it plays a crucial role in shaping their sense of belonging and community. This cultural aspect is not present in spoken American English.

b) Use of Non-Manual Markers: ASL relies heavily on non-manual markers, such as facial expressions and body movements, to convey grammatical information and emotional nuances. These non-manual markers are an essential part of ASL grammar and are not present in spoken English.

In conclusion, American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken American English are distinct languages with different grammatical structures, vocabularies, and cultural significance. While ASL relies on visual-gestural communication, iconicity, and a unique grammar system, spoken English relies on auditory-verbal communication and a rigid word order. Understanding these differences fosters greater appreciation for the beauty and complexity of both languages and their role in enhancing communication and inclusivity.

ASL as a Second Language

ASL has gained recognition as a legitimate second language for hearing individuals, leading to the rise of ASL classes and programs in educational institutions. Learning ASL offers several benefits, including fostering empathy, improving communication skills, and promoting inclusivity.

Sign Language Interpreting

ASL interpreters play a vital role in bridging the communication gap between Deaf individuals and the hearing world. They facilitate communication during various scenarios, including educational settings, medical appointments, legal proceedings, and public events. Becoming a certified ASL interpreter requires extensive training and knowledge of ASL linguistics and cultural competence.

ASL interpreter Justina Miles went viral on Super Bowl Sunday 2023 after fans noticed her passionate signing during Rihanna’s massive halftime show. Not only was Miles interpreting every lyric perfectly throughout, but viewers at home could see her getting down to the music, too. Honestly, she stole the show.

The Evolution of ASL

American Sign Language has a rich history that dates back centuries. It evolved from a combination of French Sign Language (LSF) and various regional sign languages used in the United States during the early 19th century. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a pioneering educator, played a crucial role in introducing LSF to the United States and founding the first permanent school for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut.

Since then, ASL has continued to evolve and adapt, reflecting the dynamic nature of language and cultural influences. The language has flourished in educational settings and has even been used in various art forms, including poetry and storytelling.

American Sign Language versus British Sign Language

One significant difference between British Sign Language (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL) lies in their manual alphabet systems.

In American Sign Language (ASL), the manual alphabet, also known as fingerspelling, is a common way to represent letters of the English alphabet. Fingerspelling involves using specific handshapes to convey each letter, allowing signers to spell out words or names that do not have a designated ASL sign. ASL’s fingerspelling system uses one hand to form the letters, and it is often integrated seamlessly into ASL conversations.

On the other hand, British Sign Language (BSL) has its own manual alphabet, distinct from ASL’s fingerspelling system. In BSL, the manual alphabet uses a two-handed system, where both hands work together to form the letters. This two-handed approach is a key characteristic of BSL fingerspelling and sets it apart from ASL’s one-handed fingerspelling.

While both BSL and ASL use fingerspelling to some extent, the differences in the manual alphabet systems contribute to the unique characteristics and visual representations of each language. As with other aspects of sign languages, the manual alphabets reflect the linguistic and cultural diversity of the Deaf communities in different countries.

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