Let me start by sharing with you my definition of ASL:
"American Sign Language is a visually perceived language based on a naturally evolved system of
articulated hand gestures and their placement relative to the body, along
with non-manual markers such as facial expressions, head movements, shoulder
raises, mouth morphemes, and movements of the body."
Now let's look at a couple of other definitions. According to www.dictionary.com
American Sign Language
The primary sign language used by deaf and hearing-impaired people in
the United States and Canada, devised in part by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet
on the basis of sign language in France. Also called Ameslan.
n. Abbr. ASL
A quick trip to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (www.m-w.com)
and we get:
Main Entry: American Sign Language
: a sign language for the deaf in which meaning is conveyed by a
system of articulated hand gestures and their placement relative to the
I've also seen this definition show up in many places:
Sign Language is a visual-gestural language used by 500,000 members of the
North American Deaf community."
Here is a variation on that same theme:
Sign Language is a visual-gestural language used primarily by members of the
North American Deaf community."
Now let's discuss those definitions a bit.
Did you notice the date of that entry from Merriam-Webster? 1960! ASL hasn't been "recognized" as a language for
very long has it? Oh sure, ASL has been used in America since the early 1800's (and earlier if you include the
signing that was being done in America prior to Thomas Gallaudet bringing Laurent Clerc from France), but it wasn't until 1960 that "experts" started
recognizing it as a full-blown autonomous language.
We should say "at least" 500,000 people use ASL. That is an
OLD statistic from the 1980's. My estimate
is more along the lines of: 2 million people are using ASL on a daily basis and
at least 500,000 of those people are using it as their primary means of communication.
Millions more people know "some" sign language and use it
"once in a while." For example, a grandmother of a deaf
child. She may have taken a six-week community education course and
now she knows just enough to offer her grandson candy and
is a visually perceived, gesture-based language." That means it is a language that
is expressed through the hands and face and is perceived through the eyes. It isn't just waving your
in the air. If you furrow your eyebrows, tilt your head, glance in a
certain direction, twist your body a certain way, puff your cheek, or any
number of other "inflections" --you are adding or changing meaning
in ASL. A "visual gestural" language carries just as much information as an oral/aural (mouth/ear) language.
Is ASL limited to just the United States and Canada?
No. ASL is also used in varying degrees in the Philippines,
Ghana, Nigeria, Chad, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Zaire, Central
African Republic, Cote d'Ivoire, Mauritania, Kenya, Madagascar,
Benin, Togo, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong and many other
places. (Source: Grimes, Barbara F. (editor),
(1996). "Languages of USA" Ethnologue: Languages of the
World, 13th Edition. Institute of Linguistics.)
Is ASL a universal
language? Nope. Not
even close. Those countries I just mentioned have their own signed
languages. ASL is the dominant signed language in
North America, plus it is used to some extent in quite a few other
countries, but it is certainly not understood by deaf people everywhere.