The Blue & Gray Press

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

ASL is a language

4 min read

A hand doing the ASL sign for “I love you.” | James Pryor


Staff Writer

Slowly but surely, post-secondary educational institutions are accepting American Sign Language (ASL) as a foreign language that can satisfy general education requirements. Many universities, including UMW, do not offer classes in ASL, but accept transfer credits in ASL from other colleges. 

This gradual acceptance of ASL as a foreign language prompts the question: is American Sign Language, or any form of sign language, a real language? 

Emerging studies have shown that yes, it is a language. Perhaps the reason people are hesitant to accept it as a language is because they do not know about the nature of ASL.

David Perlmutter explained this concept in an article for the Linguistic Society. “Most Americans thought  [ASL] was a way to express English words with signs—a substitute for speech. As the truth came to light in the second half of the 20th century, it surprised everyone,” said Perlmutter.

The truth is that American Sign Language operates using unique syntax, form and phonology. “ASL shares no grammatical similarities to English and should not be considered in any way to be a broken, mimed, or gestural form of English,” said Karen Nakamura in an article for Deaf Resource Library

One example of the difference between ASL and English is the placement of “wh-” words in a sentence. When talking to someone we often start by asking, “what is your name?” When signing with someone it is polite to do the same. The structure for the question in ASL is “your name what?”

“Wh-” words always come at the end of a question. If you were to invert the sentence structure when signing, you would no longer be using ASL. Instead you would be signing something called Exact Signed English or Signed Exact English.

According to Nakamura, “The proper terminology for words signed using English grammar and word order is SEE (Signed Exact English), MCE (Manually Coded English) or simply signed English. These systems are not the same as ASL, which has its own (beautiful) grammar appropriate for a visual-spatial language.” 

Another difference is the ease with which ASL expresses lengthy or complex English sentences. 

“A single ASL sign can express an entire sentence that requires three words or more in English,” said Perlmutter.

If changing the sentence structure of ASL means you have stopped speaking the language, how could this complex and vibrant language not be officially recognized as such? Likewise, why is it assumed that ASL is “broken” English? It takes four words to ask, “where is the bathroom?” in English, where one sign that is performed with furrowed eyebrows asks the same question in ASL. It’s not broken, it’s different. 

“The differences between ASL and English, once thought to show that ASL is “ungrammatical English,” have turned out to be a rich source of evidence that ASL has a grammar of its own,” said Perlmutter. 

Through the University of Vermont, Sara Davies, Sarah O’Brien and Matthew Reed compiled resources to explain the development of sign language as a language. They documented the debate centered around ASL as a language that emerged in the early 2000’s. 

“Some in academia question whether it is appropriate to consider ASL a foreign language or a second language due largely to the fact that ASL is indigenous to the United States and most people who communicate through ASL read and write in English,” said their study. 

While many people who utilize ASL as their main form of communication also read and write in English, there is a culture surrounding the language that cements it as its own. 

“With a new sense of pride in their language and culture, and rooted in Deaf people’s strong story-telling tradition, a new generation of Deaf writers, playwrights and poets has begun to explore the ways sign languages can be used to create works of art,” said Perlmutter.

Like any other culture associated with a language, there are poets, actors, writers, dancers and artists who use their Deafness to convey emotion and experiences in ways no hearing person could. 

This is a language that has rules of its own and a culture that has gathered around it. It has connections to English, just as English has connections to other languages. 

The recognition of sign language as a language should continue to increase as our community and nation develop.

“What has been discovered over the past half century is that sign language is language. This is not just a discovery about sign language; it is a discovery about language itself. It reveals human language to be more flexible than had been imagined, able to exist in either auditory or visual form,” said Perlmutter. 

When looking at sign language, understand that it is a way of expression so far beyond spoken language that it cannot be discredited. 

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