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Blog: Blog2

American Sign Language and Its Community

Updated: May 3, 2021

Language, Community and Culture

Signing seems to spark curiosity in people who have little or no experience with it. The many times people have told me "I've always wanted to learn sign language" is incredible. The term "sign language" has traditionally been used as a generic term for different varieties of sign communication. But there is an important distinction between American Sign Language, also known as ASL, and other varieties of sign communication. ASL is a natural language. It is an official language. It is different in structure from the sign systems that are heavily influenced by the English language. These sign systems go by different names such as: "Signed English," "Pidgin Signed English," "Manually Coded English," "Sign Supported Speech," among others.

American Sign Language is the language of a national community of Deaf people in the United States. ASL is also being learned as a second language by thousands of students who can hear, in schools, colleges, and other settings each year. Like wise, many hearing children of Deaf adults also learn ASL from their Deaf Parents. These children are called CODAs, which is short for Child Of Deaf Adults. Many in the community like to joke saying the Deaf community is a small world as word gets around easily, but in reality it is quite a big community that all over the United States.

The word "Deaf" is capitalized for a purpose. We use this capitalized form to refer to deaf people who make up local communities and a national community of ASL users. This distinction is made because there are deaf people who are not part of these communities, who may not know ASL. This distinction is between those deaf individuals who use ASL and those who are deaf but do not participate in the language or community of Deaf people. Just because one does not hear, it does not necessarily mean that one has learned ASL and is part of a Deaf community.

Vice versa, there are also individuals who can hear who use ASL and interact a great deal within Deaf communities. These hearing users of ASL are a part of the life of Deaf communities wherever they may be and they participate in the social and cultural life of these communities in many ways. They are, however, not Deaf. By learning ASL yourself, you too are beginning an exposure to a community and culture of Deaf people.

Within American Sign Language, there are dialects and varieties of the language used by people all around the nation. Just like in spoken languages, there are dialects, varieties and slang that are used. ASL is the same.

Common Misunderstandings About ASL

It helps to understand what American Sign Language is by considering what it is not. Yes, ASL users do gesture. However, it is the same as English using sound. It is not merely gesture anymore than English is merely sound. It is not mine. This is an important point about ASL. One cannot understand it until one learns it. As with any language, it takes many years of study and interaction with people who use it, to be able to learn it properly. Just like any language.

ASL is not universal. There is no universal sign language, just as there is no universal spoken language.

ASL is not derived from spoken English and has no roots in that language. Because of the various sign systems mentioned earlier that depend heavily on English structure, many people often get the impression that ASL is somehow a form of English simply made visual on the hands. This is not the case. ASL structure is different from English structure in many ways and alike in other ways. ASL also has grammatical features similar to some found in Russian and other languages.


Many languages have roots or influences from other languages. The same goes for ASL. ASL has been in the United States as early as the late 1700's. The United States was colonized by various European cultures. Therefore, we can assume that the signing communities of Deaf people in Europe had and influence on the lives of Deaf people in this country. For example, there is a strong French influence on ASL because of the establishment of a school for the Deaf . This was a historical event that led to a convergence of two languages, American Sign Language and French Sign Language (FSL). Of course, ASL has over time evolved and separated itself from FSL. One might be able to recognize a few signs but not understand the language as it is different.

Although there was many English colonists in the United States, British Sign Language did not make much of an impression on ASL.

The Culture of Deaf People

ASL binds the American deaf community but that is only part of the story. In the case of deaf people, clearly their language and their common feature of not hearing link them together. As you develop your fluency in ASL and interact more and more with deaf people, you will see cultural differences between yourself and Deaf people. This is a normal part of the process of learning a language. Some of the behavior that you see may give you insight into the culture, but it is important not to make assumptions about behavior you observed and deaf people without understanding what generates that behavior.

Beliefs and World View

To be of the deaf culture in the United States is to share with other Deaf people a complex system of beliefs about yourself, your community, ASL, and the world around you. This knowledge that deaf people have allows them to generate behaviors, know and interpret the world, and go about their daily lives in a particular way that we see and comment as being "Deaf".

What is interesting is that among Deaf people, the signs DEAF and HARD-OF-HEARING do not necessarily refer to degrees of hearing but rather to a perception of oneself or of another person who does not hear. DEAF marks a central connection to the group while HARD-OF-HEARING marks another kind of identity, meaning those who display characteristics of hearing people such as speaking, using the telephone, and other hearing like behaviors. These labels are cultural rather than strictly audiological. There are DEAF people who hear to some degree and speak quite well and some HARD-OF-HEARING people who are totally without hearing and do not speak very well. What is important is the public behavior as Deaf people or as hard-of-hearing people.

Deaf people do not view themselves as disabled or handicapped. They view themselves as competent individuals with a linguistic and cultural history.

There's plenty more I can say about ASL and the Deaf community but this is a short introduction. You are welcome to message me with questions!


This article was written based on the book: A Basic Course in American Sign Language. It was written by Tom Humphries, Carol Padden, and Terrence J. O'Rourke. It was illustrated by Frank A. Paul. Here is a picture of the book.



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