American Sign Language

The Five Senses and Beyond: The Encyclopedia of Perception - Jennifer L. Hellier 2017

American Sign Language

For persons who are deaf or hard of hearing, it can be difficult to communicate with hearing individuals as well as with other deaf people. Thus, sign languages were developed for this reason. A sign language is a type of communication generated by different hand motions that may be combined with facial expressions or body positions. However, not all sign languages are the same throughout the world, meaning that a hand gesture with a facial expression in one region of the world may have another meaning in a different country. In 2015, there were 141 known sign languages in use in multiple countries and regions, including the United Kingdom, Africa, Japan, France, and North America, to name a few. In the United States and English-speaking parts of Canada, the primary language for the deaf is American Sign Language or ASL.

Language acquisition is crucial to learn within the first two years after birth so that a child’s communication skills are developed. This is the same for learning American Sign Language. The earlier a deaf child is taught American Sign Language, the better his or her communications skills will be as well as his or her emotional development. Studies have shown that deaf children born to hearing-impaired parents who sign American Sign Language will learn ASL at the same rate as hearing children will learn spoken language. However, 9 out of 10 deaf children are born to hearing parents. Thus, if the parents do not know sign language, the deaf child’s communication development can be significantly delayed.


It is estimated that American Sign Language was developed more than 200 years ago by intermixing local sign language with Langue des Signes Française (or French Sign Language). However, the American School for the Deaf has since standardized gestures with facial expressions to represent words and developed standard American Sign Language letters for fingerspelling English words that do not have a sign, thus making American Sign Language a complex and rich language. Today, American Sign Language and French Sign Language are different languages, although some components are still similar. Nonetheless, a person signing American Sign Language would not be able to understand a person using French Sign Language and vice versa.

American Sign Language vs. Spoken Language

Spoken language is the process of forming and saying sounds to produce words by moving the mouth and tongue. Pushing air through different shapes of the mouth and/or tongue produces unique sounds for each letter or letter combination. However, deaf people cannot hear these sounds and lip reading can be difficult, particularly in rapid speech. Since some words can be read, it was recognized that the best way for a deaf person to communicate with others is through sight.

In spoken language, there are specific language rules for sentence structure and grammar. This is similar in American Sign Language; however, ASL does not follow the same rules as English but does have the fundamental features of a language—subject, verb, object components; word order; punctuation, and so on. For example, in spoken language to ask a question, a person will raise the pitch of his or her voice at the end of the sentence. In American Sign Language to show that a question is being asked, the signer will raise the eyebrows, widen the eyes, and tilt the body forward.

Lastly, spoken languages tend to have several dialects depending on the location of a community—a southern drawl, nasal pronunciations, and so on. American Sign Language has similar dialect and regional affectations. Specifically, a sign for a word may have a slightly different form or shape of the hand or gesture in one region compared to the standardized gesture. The rhythm of signing either faster or slower is another way to identify an American Sign Language dialect.

Jennifer L. Hellier

See also: Auditory System; Cochlea; Cochlear Implants; Deafness

Further Reading

Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, & Charles D. Fennig (Eds.). (2015). Deaf sign language. In Ethnologue: Languages of the World (18th ed.), SIL International. Retrieved from

Meir, Irit, Wendy Sandler, Carol Padden, & Mark Aronoff. (2010). Emerging sign languages. In The Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education, Vol. 2. Oxford Handbooks Online. Eds. M. Marschark & P. Spencer. Retrieved from

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). (2015). American Sign Language. Retrieved from