| American sign language (ASL) is:
ASL is not:
- The native language of the deaf community throughout the U.S. and English-speaking areas of Canada
- A complex visual-spatial language
- A linguistically complete, natural language with a unique grammar, syntax, morphology, phonetics, culture and history
- The fourth most commonly used language in the United States.
- A manual form of English
- A universal/world-wide language for the deaf
- A quick, easily learned language that can be "picked up" through a casual approach.
There are variants of signed communication systems that the uninitiated might confuse with ASL, such as Signed Exact English (SEE), Manually Coded English (MCE), or signed English that all use English grammar and words. Also, many hearing people who try to learn/use ASL actually use what is commonly termed Pidgin Sign English. PSE is also used by some deaf when communicating with a hearing person who is less fluent in ASL.
As an audiologist, I sometimes have a hearing impaired patient inquire where they can learn ASL, thinking that would be the solution to their hearing impairment. This line of thinking generally arises out of ignorance of what ASL really is and what it is not. They must first determine if they want to/can move from the "hearing world" to the "deaf world." (See related article: "Hearing Impairment vs. Deafness"). This is a fundamental change that the vast majority of hearing impaired people is unable/unwilling to make. They underestimate the difficulty of acquiring ASL skill and rarely consider with whom they would communicate in this new language-most of them never having associated with culturally deaf people. In more than 30 years of practice, I know of only one of my patients who successfully made the transition and that was largely because he married a culturally deaf woman who became his mentor. If you are interested in learning a "foreign" language and are interested in ASL or if you have determined that you want to become a part of the deaf community, go for it!
You would probably be best served to find an ASL class taught by a deaf person, and begin to get to know some deaf people with whom you can associate. Most communities of any size have resources including organizations for the deaf that welcome those who want to become acquainted with deaf language and culture.
My exposure to ASL has been through my church where I have associated with a deaf group for more than 5 years. My ASL skill is still rather rudimentary, and I really use signed English for the most part. The deaf I understand best are those who can modify their signing a bit to accommodate my abilities. When I try to converse with someone who is strictly ASL, I struggle. My association with my deaf friends has enriched my life and broadened my perspective. It has been a challenging and fascinating experience, but I also know that I will probably never be particularly proficient in ASL.
For those who are considering communication/education options for a deaf child, there are many important considerations that are beyond the scope of this article. Historically, there have been very strongly held feelings on the part of some that all deaf children should be taught with the aural/oral method-which is to teach them in English and force them to learn to lip-read and express themselves orally. They tend to dismiss ASL as an inferior approach only used by those who are not smart enough to thrive in the oral tradition. My view of this is that it has nothing to do with intellectual prowess, but hinges more importantly on whether there is any useable hearing, when the hearing loss occurred, whether a cochlear implant is an option being considered and so forth. The culturally deaf generally do not regard themselves as "disabled" but, rather, view deafness as part of who they are and really have no desire to be hearing. This concept is not understood by the vast majority of the hearing but is strongly held by virtually all of the culturally deaf and should be respected by all.
Most hearing people assume the deaf can read and understand written English as easily as do hearing people. This is not true for the majority of the deaf. Remember, ASL is their native language. English is a second language and many develop only limited fluency in it. If you try to communicate in writing with a deaf person who uses ASL, try to use simple, uncomplicated sentences and avoid or explain words that may be unknown to them. Always ask if they understand or if you have used words they don't know and then be prepared to explain any with which they are not familiar.
If you would like to research this topic further, go to the internet and search the American Sign Language listings.