American Sign Language Is Not English

“Are you bilingual?” a teacher asks Jennifer, a junior in high school.

“Yes, I speak English and American Sign Language,” Jennifer replies.

“Oh come on!” The teacher says, scoffing. “American Sign Language is basically English.”

In this anecdote, the teacher is conflating American Sign Language, or ASL, with English. In so doing, the teacher, whether consciously or unconsciously, is marginalizing ASL as a less complete language. At the same time, the teacher is also undermining Jennifer’s achievements. If Jennifer is not already confident in her abilities, she may leave this interaction doubting herself and the validity of her knowledge of ASL.

The teacher’s insensitivity likely stems from a misunderstanding of ASL and its relationship with English. She likely views ASL as a derivative of English—like English played out in charades. This myth is compounded by the title of ASL: American” Sign Language, like it is somehow linked with the English language.

In fact, American Sign Language is an entirely distinct language from English. It is complete with unique processes and grammar. ASL is a complex system, capable of types of nuance, depth, and emotion that cannot be reached by English and many other verbal languages.

The teacher may conflate ASL with English because ASL developed primarily in America. However, ASL was developing within deaf culture, a culture that is distinct from American culture. Like other modern languages, ASL morphed across decades into the language it is today. Its development was concentrated within deaf educational institutions, like the American School for the Deaf, founded in 1817.

Because language is the bedrock of culture, ASL is deeply linked with deaf culture. ASL is not the same as English, just as American culture is the not the same as deaf culture. Indeed, there is interplay between the two cultures and the two languages, but the differences are too great to ignore.

Fortunately, more teachers, professors, and educational institutions are beginning to recognize the credibility of ASL as a unique language. If Jennifer attends a state university, she can take a class in American Sign Language, and it can count as a foreign language credit. Hopefully, Jennifer will encounter professors who acknowledge ASL a language in its own right rather than checking it off as a derivative of English.

If you’re considering taking a class or studying ASL, it’s important to enter that endeavor with the knowledge that it isn’t the same as English. Otherwise, it would be easy to get frustrated or discouraged by how difficult it is to learn ASL.

If you already realize that ASL is a completely different language than your native tongue, you can dive into your studies prepared for the challenge! ASL is an extremely worthwhile language to learn, opening up new avenues of interacting with other people, your own body, and your thought processes. ASL is a language worth the challenge.