History of American Sign Language


American Sign Language was discovered and used by people long time before it was documented and officially acknowledged. After it was recognized, historians and educators worked hard to reconstruct its development with its root beginning in the eighteenth century. For centuries, people thought that it was not possible to teach a deaf child and such a child could not be allowed to attend school together with hearing students.

Schools that were specifically for deaf began in Europe in the seventeenth century with focus on trying to teach children who were hearing impaired on how to master their own native language through interpreting the movement of lips. Deaf people were very committed at these tasks in school and this was reinforced with development of informal signs for communication when outside school.

A linguistics who successfully studied American Sign Language commended the language for being fully functional. Research in twentieth century allowed conclusion by scientists that American Sign Language met definitive qualities of a true language because of its grammar, specific rules and syntax which made it to be shared by distinct communities. The sign system relates directly to concepts and gestures and bypasses signed exact English that bridges concepts, words and signs. (Paul, 1988 pp15-16)

American Sign Language has steadily gained respect and children who are born deaf have made it their language as well as for those who become deaf latter in life even after they have learnt English. This language has also been given respectable status at colleges and high schools where it is taught as an optional subject as one of the foreign language and this has made the world of education acknowledge Americans sign language as a distinct language with its own rights.

America’s Indians Great Plains developed an extensive system used for signing but was for inter-tribal communication rather than for the deaf. Americans owes gratitude to Thomas Gallaudet; a congregational minister who was interested in helping a young neighbor who was deaf. In 1817, first nation school for deaf people was found by Gallaudet in Hartford where Clerc was the United States’ first teacher of sign language for deaf. Soon there were many schools for deaf people in several states, among them being the school for deaf in New York and several other schools which continued being established throughout the United States.. (Paul, 1988 pp17-18)

In the United States, families which have deaf children employ ad-hoc home sign to help in simple communication. Today, the sign language classes in American secondary schools are distinct from English that is spoken in that, its grammar and syntax are able to support a culture of its own. The Origin of modern American Sign Language is tied to many circumstances and events that include making historical attempts at education for the deaf.

American Sign Language includes finger spelling; alphabetical letters and signs which are borrowed from English to distinguish all the related meaning and all these would be covered using a single sign in the American Sign Language. For example, two hands are used to trace a circle meaning people in a group and if they are several groups it is specified using a hand shape. C hands mean class and F hands means family. These are referred to as initialized signs because of substituting first initial from English words as hand shape to give a meaning that is more specific. (Padden, 1988 pp16-18)


Interpreters and translators translate written or spoken words and expressions that are in the sign language to another language. Translators deal mostly with text that has been written in one language translating it into another language. Live speech is dealt with by interpreters through listening to the sign language speakers and translating all that is said. Interpreters of sign language offer translation between the language that is spoken and sign language and this requires both interpreters and translators to be fluent in both languages with a clear understanding of the subject matter and must be competent with skills in public speaking.

Interpreters act as escorts or guides and may listen and interpret consecutively by waiting for a pause from the speaker and then later make a translation of what was said. This requires intuitive knowledge of source language and subject matter so that the interpreter is able to anticipate what is said by the speaker and be able to talk and at the same time listen. Interpreters and translators work for their clients directly or using translation agencies. Some are full time workers for the state and a few works with federal government.

The employment outlook for interpreters of sign language is good because the law requires services offered by programs that are federally funded be made available to American people who are deaf and disabled. Act for Americans with disabilities requires employers to offer an interpreter to deaf individuals if the workers employed exceed twenty five for over twenty calendar weeks.

Sign languages are involved in expressing different kinds of linguistic information simultaneously using manual channels or non-manual channels. Hands and arms are used to convey important linguistic information accompanied by use of facial expression, head gestures and upper body. Linguistic studies are accomplished through collecting video data from signers of American Sign Language which is of high quality such as being viewed from multiple angles with face close-up. The annotations used in components that are linguistically relevant in non-manual and manual channels are very important when researching on computer based American Sign Language recognition. (Padden, 1988 pp13-15)

There have been advances in being able to recognize facial expressions which are meaningful through coupling continuous and discrete tracking methods. By using these methods, hand motion is analyzed and enables one to differentiate between finger spelled signs and those which are not. When we are given these types of signs, we have internal linguistic structures which are different and the discrimination is important for recognizing these manual signs.

Cochlear implant was introduced for the first time in 1970s but has become popular recently as an options for hearing impaired and deaf individuals who are looking forward to restoring their hearing. The advancement made to the implant has attracted large media coverage due to the interest in implant as an alternative for restoring hearing. Today there has been great success due to implantation. Moral and ethical issues are raised because of implant becoming a popular option and being used in deaf and medical community. Some people are against implant and others believe in it. Some People believe that, implant is appropriate for people with progressive hearing loss while others believe in it as wonderful option for people who are hearing impaired.

Members of deaf community oppose the use of cochlear implant and feel threatened by it. This argument is understood because deaf people are proud of being deaf and believe God has chosen it for them and therefore consider deafness as their right of silence. They do not see deafness as disability but rather appreciate their communication through sign language and this has resulted to argument on deaf culture to be interesting and compelling. (Schein, 1984 pp33-35).

According to studies on statistics, many deaf people who use American Sign Language to communicate and participate in programs that are non-oral, have low writing, reading and test scores for languages. In a study conducted in reading, a typical deaf graduate from a high school scored forth grade in his reading level because syntax is different from the one in English language. When sign language is visually received and produced as a gesture, it is intriguing and very beautiful. However it has rules in creating words, phonetics and grammar that is not found in spoken languages.

Future predictions

An experiment was carried out on interpretation and judgment of isolated signs found in American Sign Language. This experiment was able to investigate classification of American signs under three categories namely arbitrary signs, metaphorical and iconic signs. The result from the study showed that, a lot of sense was made from iconic signs, which was natural and obvious than arbitrary signs. Results from the study indicated that more accurate guesses are made by people on meaning of metaphorical signs. Conceptual metaphors for motivating metaphorical signs offer basis used for interpreting meaning of signs. The suggestion from the experiment is that interpretation and judgment of American Sign Language give insight to metaphorical structure of conceptual system. (Schein, 1984 pp36-39)

The teachers association of American Sign Language is the national organization that improves and expands the teaching of American Sign Language and studies of the deaf at all the levels of instruction. The association is an organization of individual membership with over 1000 educators of American Sign Language studies, starting from elementary up to graduate education and agencies. American Sign Language teacher’s association invites people to browse their website. They encourage people to make use of the available information and get breaking news all the time where interested people can join them in expanding knowledge in deaf studies and understanding the culture of United States.

Research and analysis of American Sign Language focuses on recognizing citation as they are in continuous citing and getting algorithms that are able to scale well in large vocabularies. Lexical signs have not been recognized well to get full understanding of communication of sign language. Grammatical processes and non manual signs resulting in systematic variations in appearance of signs form integral aspect of communication and have gotten comparatively less attention in literature. (Valli, 2000 pp12-13)

This survey examines acquisition of data, future extraction and methods of classification used to analyze gestures of sign language. The discussion is done with respect to modeling transitions that exist between signs used in continuous signing, signer independence, modeling of inflectional processes and adaptation. Work that deals with no manual signs is analyzed and discussion made on issues that are integrated with hand sign gestures.

There is a discussion about overall progress in getting a true test of systems for recognizing signs and how to deal with natural signs from native signers. Some future directions for the research are suggested with contribution it would make to other research fields. Supplemental materials that are web based have illustrative examples and videos used for signing. (Valli, 2000 pp14-15)

Students are drawn to American Sign Language because it is easier and more interesting than spoken language but most come to know that, although it is gestural and visual, it is not easy. American Sign Language has grammatical structure of its own with large part of its vocabulary being composed of words that have many morphemes or pieces of words containing meaning. The sign language is different in the whole world and has two hundred different forms. For example, American Sign Language and Chinese sign language are different.

Some people question whether it can be appropriate for American Sign Language to be considered as second language or foreign language. This is because in United States, sign language is indigenous and most people use it to communicate, read and write. The controversy is from those people who are not able to understand and comprehend the nature of the sign language. Boston University has programs in deaf studies but does not recognize American Sign Language as fulfilling in requirement of foreign language and the battle is still on about the issue. (Valli, 2000 pp16-19)


Paul V. (1988): Language and deafness: Singular Thomson Learning, pp. 15-18.

Schein D. (1984): Speaking the language of sign: Doubleday, pp. 33-39.

Valli C. (2000): Linguistics of American Sign Language: Gallaudet University Press, pp. 12-19.

Padden C. (1988): Deaf in America voices from a culture: Harvard University Press, pp. 13-18.

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