Most people don’t realize how many people use American Sign Language in the U.S. Most hearing individuals only encounter a few deaf people in their lives, and some of these may not use American Sign Language, or ASL. It’s easy to assume that only a few people in the U.S. use ASL.
In fact, ASL is widely spoken across the United States. Some people cite it as the third most-spoken language in the nation. Although this could be true, pinning down exactly how many people use ASL can be difficult. Censuses on languages can be deceiving. For example, if a census asks what languages are spoken in the home, an ASL user may not write down ASL since it isn’t technically be spoken, but signed.
However, all the evidence points to ASL’s ubiquitous use. Let’s break down the numbers to understand what makes ASL such a widespread language.
Around 2 million people in the United States are deaf. Beyond that, another 10 million people are hard of hearing, meaning they have moderate to severe hearing loss. Many deaf individuals, however, do not speak ASL.
How is that? Well, of the 2 million deaf individuals, only 10% are born without out any hearing. That means that the majority of deaf people—and the hard of hearing—experience hearing loss later in life. Many of them are senior citizens. People who experience hearing loss later in life probably will not learn ASL at an older age. They may compensate for hearing loss in other ways, like getting a hearing aid or cochlear implant.
About 4% of the deaf population are younger than 18. These are the people who are most likely to learn ASL and to become active members of the Deaf community. To be an active part of the Deaf community, you must learn and be fluent in ASL. Many of these people will grow up speaking ASL as their first, or natural language.
About 500,000 people in the U.S. use ASL as their natural language. However, keep in mind that this number does not include the many people who learn ASL as parents of deaf children, as educators, as translators, or for many other reasons.
For instance, about 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents. These hearing parents are likely to learn ASL to communicate with their children and the Deaf community of which they are a part.
It’s likely that many of the people you interact with everyday are ASL users. One of the primary reasons people, both deaf and hearing, learn ASL is to be a part of the Deaf community. American Sign Language is foundational for supporting and linking together the diverse members of that community