Before addressing any of the linguistic details about sign language, it’s important to address the mythologies about them which may surface in our classrooms:
- First, there is not just one sign language. American Sign Language is based on one that was developed in Fance, but there is not one universal system of signs. British Sign Language has a different origin, which means ASL and BSL users cannot understand one another.
- Sign languages are not pantomime. Some signs are iconic, but signers are not acting things out. This is a language with a highly developed and evolving grammar–just like any other human language.
- American Sign Language (ASL) is not English. In fact, it has a very different grammatical structure than English. There are no determiners (words like articles and demonstratives), and it does not have the same word order as English. And, because there are more possible articulators for signed language than there are for spoken language (sign language makes use of facial features, arm gestures, hand/finger gestures, etc.), there can be greater overlap in the morphology/phonology of signed languages than we find in spoken languages.
- Not every deaf person in the United States uses ASL. In fact, not every deaf person knows how to sign at all. For this reason, people in the United States sometimes refer to differences in big-D (Deaf) culture and little-d (deaf) culture. Big-D/Deaf culture refers to those who grew up using ASL with other Deaf people. Little-d/deaf culture refers to those who did not.
- Signed Language is not finger-spelling. This is often a jarring fact to language speakers who are unfamiliar with signed language, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. For one thing, you learn you language before you learn to spell. For another, English spelling is quasi-phonological (although cruelly, not as phonetic as people would like to believe), so it would be somewhat cruel to ask those who could not hear to base their language patterns on a system they had no access to. Lastly, think about how long it would take you to read this sentence to the person sitting next to you if you had to do it letter by letter (and indicate word breaks in between)!
Here’s a link to others who have addressed sign language mythologies:
- Rebecca Orton’s Ezine Article on Sign Language Myths
- ASL Defined’s list of myths
- Myths about teaching babies to sign
If you’re interested in information about the grammatical structure of any of the world’s signed languages, please keep checking back here. We will be updating this page with links to various websites as we can verify their linguistic (and social) accuracy.
We also welcome suggestions from those of you with expertise in this area. Please leave these in the comment section or find us on our other social media sites (Facebook or Twitter).
We are particularly interested in obtaining these sites since the Deaf are often badly treated by education systems around the world (including the United States). Fortunately, progress here in the U.S. is being made, as more and more day cares around the country are realizing that ASL gives them a way to communicate with infants and toddlers long before they are capable of speech. (It’s easier to master articulations you can see–in signed language–than it is to master those you can’t–e.g. those that go on inside the mouths of spoken language users.) However, this practice is not wide spread, and many deaf children are born into homes where the parents do not sign. This delays their language acquisition process considerably.