Like spoken languages, there are different signed languages around the world. In other words, sign language is not a universal language. That is, ASL (American Sign Language) used in North America is completely different from BSL (British Sign Language) used in U.K. and Auslan (Australian Sign Language) in Australia, New Zealand Sign Language, Spanish Sign Language, French Sign Language and so on.
American Sign Language (ASL) is a language in visual-spatial modality through visual articulators, such as fingers, hands and face as the opposite of vocal-aural modality that uses mouth, teeth, tongue, larynx, etc. It's a full-fledged, natural language of its own grammar, structure, and vocabulary developed by native Deaf signers over the past hundreds of years through Deaf schools, Deaf families, and Deaf communities. It has all linguistic features from phonology to morphology to syntax.
Ameslan, which stands for "American Sign Language," is an old term used in the 1960s and has been obsolete since then. However, it is resurfaced in some places nowadays. Louie J. Fant, Jr. wrote one of the early published books, "Ameslan: an introduction to American Sign Language" in 1972.
Signed languages including ASL have all linguistics (i.e. phonology, morphology, syntax, and all) which presents the evidence that it's a language and they are independent from spoken languages. Contrary to common assumption, ASL is not "signed English" nor "English on hands". It's completely separate and distinct from English.
ASL has its own grammar, structure, and lexicon. Intonation and stress involves facial expressions and other nuances of movements. For example, English speakers ask a question by increasing the pitch on the voice, whereas ASL speakers ask a question by raising the eyebrows.
Signs or signed words have variations across North America, whether it's east coast or west coast, whether it's just one state away from the state, or one province away from the other. Don't confuse variations with inflections, nuances, gradients of meanings, etc.
Just as there are different signed languages around the world, there are different manual alphabets around the world. Fingerspelling in American manual alphabet is also part of ASL; it's used to spell out English or foreign words of spoken/written languages, such as personal names, brand names (if no ASL signs), names of some cities, and specific foreign words (including English).
ASL is the primary language of Deaf communities in the U.S. and Canada. It's dominantly spoken by Deaf people, Deaf families, codas (hearing children of Deaf parents), and deaf and hard-of-hearing people in Deaf community across North America. This language inseparably from its culture is the core of (North) American Deaf culture and is pride of Deaf people's cultural identity.
In addition, non-native signers also use ASL with a Deaf person, such as hearing interpreters, friends, family members, parents of deaf children, partners or spouses, and relatives. More hearing people have learned basic ASL in colleges and post-secondary education. ASL is the 3rd (then 4th) most studied language in the U.S., according to the Modern Language Association's statistics (2016).
Unlike learners, Deaf children and hearing codas of Deaf parents (and in some cases, signing hearing parents' deaf children who attend deaf schools from early childhood) acquire the ASL language in the natural way from full-fledged ASL environments on the same timeline of language acquisition in the same way hearing children acquire their spoken languages. They are usually called "native signers".
Many colleges and universities offer ASL courses for hearing students. Some high schools may also provide ASL courses along with other second language courses. Some Deaf schools also offer ASL programs for parents of deaf children as well as ASL as a first language to Deaf students. Also check out some Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing services and some organizations or associations of the Deaf to see if they have non-credit ASL workshops and ASL immersion programs.
Learning ASL is not easy nor difficult. It's more or less similar to learning any spoken language such as French, German, or Spanish. For most hearing people, the degree of difficulty is rated as somewhere between fairly easy to fairly hard. For a few learners, it may be fairly easy, while for a few others, it may be difficult. Though, often hearing learners underestimate sign language.
As with learning a spoken language, learning ASL takes effort, patience, and commitment. A number of years depends on how farther you want to go toward some level of fluency and how much immersion you get in interaction with Deaf signers. It's no difference from learning and using a foreign spoken language. Often, many stay at the same average level for decades; thus, a number of years don't tell the true level.
ASL originated from the intermingle of Old French Sign Language (Old LSF) that French Deaf teacher Laurent Clerc brought to the U.S., Martha Vineyard Sign Language, and local and indigenous sign languages that children attended from other regions, including Martha Vineyard Island, when first permanent American School for the Deaf was founded in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817. ASL has been evolved ever since then that LSF (French Sign Language) and ASL are distinct languages which are not recognizable to each other.
The Yale alumnus and minister Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787-1851) met a neighbor Dr. Cogswell's little deaf daughter, Alice Cogswell, in his neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut. The legend is that Gallaudet wrote a word "hat" in the soil and pointed to the hat. Alice learned the word. This inspired the legacy of deaf education in America.
There were no deaf schools in the U.S. at that time. Alice's father Dr. Cogswell and Gallaudet were interested in founding deaf education. With the help of funds, Gallaudet agreed to travel to to England to learn about teaching methods of deaf education. He visited the Braidswood family-owned private oral-method school. Unsatisfied; however, a fate twisted that led him to a lecture by French educators (the school head Abbe Sicard and the deaf faculty members Laurent Clerc and Jean Massieu) from Paris.
There Gallaudet was invited to visit the school for the deaf -- Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris (the National Institute for Deaf Children in Paris) founded in 1760 which is the first public school for the deaf in the world. He spent some time at the school to learn the teaching methods. As the funds ran out, he needed to go back to America.
Gallaudet asked the brilliant young deaf teacher, Clerc, to come to America with him. Back in America, they founded the first permanent school for the deaf, American Asylum (now the American School for the Deaf) in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817. Over the decades, schools for the deaf popped up all over North America.
The Old French Sign Language (OFSL) that Clerc brought to the U.S. was intermingled with the native signed languages, including the Martha Vineyard Sign Language. ASL has been evolved ever since then.
Deaf education and sign language prospered as well as professions that deaf people of all walks enjoyed until the "Dark Age" from the infamous Milan of 1880 where the oralist delegates voted to ban sign language used in deaf education around the world until the 1960s. The successes and professions of deaf lives declined. Deaf people and their language suffered in face of the systemic oralist oppressions.
Despite the oralist oppression, ASL thrived on in Deaf community and sign language was still used outside classrooms where Deaf children's tiny hands were commonly slapped with a ruler for using sign language. Like anywhere in the world, there was much ignorance. Signed languages were seen and treated as bad with a condescending attitude. Deaf people and their signed languages survived through the systemic oppressions. Slowly, various English signed systems were introduced in deaf education to "support" English speech through visual methods. Again, it doesn't support the natural, native language acquisition.
In the 1960s, William Stokoe, a hearing English professor at Gallaudet University (formerly Gallaudet College), observed ASL sign language used by the Gallaudet students on campus. He studied and discovered that it had linguistic features (phonology, morphology, syntax, and all) like any spoken language. He did his research work. He proclaimed that it is a natural language. His works were published in linguistics journals. Since the 1970s, a number of research and studies have quickly grown. Stokoe is known as the father of ASL linguistics. This was a life-changing moment for Deaf people who reclaimed their pride in language and culture.
In the 1980s, credit courses in ASL bloomed in colleges and universities as well as in high schools across North America. In the meanwhile, bilingual-bicultural education (ASL and English) was introduced into deaf schools in the 1980s. The bilingual approach has been all successful.
In the 1990s and onward, cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto (1954-) is known for her scientific discoveries involving early language acquisition in sign language, pronoun acquisition in language development, manual babbling, and others. Her studies show that language is amodal, which means that language is independent from modality -- the brain doesn't tell the difference between hands and lips. This was a revolutionary on the nature of language.
Today millions of Deaf people, friends, colleagues, and family members speak ASL on a daily basis. ASL has been popular for a second language learning in post-secondary education. There are many ASL courses provided in secondary and post-secondary education as well as continuing education programs in North America.
The public (hearing) attitude toward sign language and Deaf people have changed with more allyship and embrace for diversity and equality/equity. However, there is still a practice of audist attitude and systemic oppression (linguicism, audism, phonocentrism, oralism, and likes), especially in the medical niches. For example, baby sign language is cultural appropriation and it's as misleading and non-existent as "baby speech language". We still fight against other -isms, including cultural appropriation.
Deaf people of all walks are proud bilingual-bicultural (or even multilingual-cultural). What unite Deaf people with intersectional identities all together with the common thread is Deafhood and the (signed) language -- the core identity of Deaf people.
"The Legacy Begins." https://www.gallaudet.edu/about/history-and-traditions/the-legacy-begins/
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This documentation project follows a child's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, from newborn to age five in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.