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The Role of ASL in Language Extinction:

Alethea Chamberlain
May 7, 2007

The Role of ASL in Language Extinction

American Sign Language (ASL) is a living, modern language which is constantly evolving to coincide with the changing environment and community it serves. The adaptation of a language to its surroundings and inhabitants is a crucial component for those who rely on it to subsist. As with any organism in the biological world, if the species does not change in structure or form, the chances of its survival become dismal. The same principle of accommodation could also be applied to language. If modification of a language (including ASL) does not take place, then the impact that it would have on those who depend on ASL to exist would be profound.

Linguists are now discovering a few indigenous inhabitants of lands whose sole form of communication relies heavily on some variation of manual gestures. These imperfectly developed signs, also called “home signs” are often the person’s only means of interacting with family, friends, and others within their social unit. One such population is the peoples of the Keresan Indian Pueblo in New Mexico.

During a study conducted in the Spring 2000 by the University of Texas at Austin, a previously undiscovered form of sign language was uncovered. Walter Kelley and Tony McGregor, two doctoral candidates from the University write, “The signs, Keresan Pueblo Indian Sign Language (KPISL), are used by some of the pueblo’s Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing individuals. This newly discovered language, an idiosyncratic home sign language, was developed perhaps by family members in order to communicate with their offspring, siblings and relatives who have a hearing loss. The signs appear to have evolved in the same way as spoken language, progressing gradually from the representational to the symbolic, from the picture to the symbol, but still remaining primarily representational or ideographic (Frishberg, 1987). Today, many individuals in the pueblo use it while communicating with others inside the small village” (Kelley,1998). However, the potential for collision with ASL lies in the fact that without regular usage or due to the integration of American ASL in schools, KPISL is now becoming a dying language. Kelley and McGregor go on to reveal, “Unfortunately, the signs are not used among the younger Pueblo Indian generation due to their learning in school American Sign Language (ASL) used by American Deaf individuals or Seeing Exact English 2 (SEE 2), a methodology of using signs following the spoken English word order. In addition, KPISL was used at a nearby pueblo but it is no longer seen” (Kelley, 1998).

Another example of an indigenous sign language is Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL). In an article written by Elizabeth Malone for the National Science Foundation, this language developed as a result of people who were isolated for years, but when they were reunited in schools with other deaf individuals, a new language emerged. She explains, “This case is particularly interesting because this language arose not as the result of language contact or the creolization (merging) of previously existing languages, but rather from the merging of idiosyncratic gesture systems (called "home signs") that were used for communication within the immediate family by the first generation of deaf children to enter the schools. Home signers quickly began to share their idiosyncratic systems. Young children exposed to a mix of gesturing began to produce a communication form radically different from their input. The new form was more fluid, more complex and wholly language-like” (Malone, 2005).

If a language (spoken or otherwise) is not utilized or passed down from one generation to the next, then the devastating result would be language extinction. Accompanying the loss of a native language is the loss of the traditions, culture, and perhaps even a loss of life. Language extinction, also referred to as total language death, is defined as occurring, “when there are no speakers of a given language idiom remaining in a population where the idiom was previously used (i.e. when all native speakers die). Language death may affect any language idiom, including (so-called) dialects and languages” ("Language Death," 2007).

 To ensure the integrity of a culture remains intact while those who need to learn ASL are exposed to new ways of communicating, the dominant group must demonstrate extraordinary intercultural competence skills. This delicate task of synthesizing two languages and two cultures is not a easy undertaking, however, it is as assignment that is necessary when blending ASL with rare native signs. One anthropologist from California State University, Chico describes this as language maintenance. He indicates, “Language maintenance, or language conservation, refers to efforts made to keep languages from disappearing. In the past, many languages have become extinct. Efforts are currently being made to preserve endangered languages. These efforts involve the development of bilingual educational programs, recording and curating native languages, and encouraging cross-generational use of native languages” (Findlay,1998).

What role can ASL play in this mission of preservation? The educators of ASL can use their exclusive knowledge of manual signs to assist in regaining lost cultural languages and traditions. In remote areas where home signs are used as the main source of communication, ASL instructors have a responsibility to ensure the integration of native signs into mainstream manual communication in order to provide a much more rich level of language and fellowship between the Deaf or Hard of Hearing and their loved ones, and more importantly to aid in the prevention of linguistic genocide.  

Works Cited:

  • Findlay, Michael Shaw. Language and Communication: A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1998.
  • Kelley, Walter P., McGregor, Tony l. (2001, April). Keresan Pueblo Indian Sign Language, A Paper Presented at the Deaf Studies VII Conference. Retrieved April 21,2007, from

·         "Language death." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 30 Apr 2007, 00:50 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 6 May 2007 <>.

·         Malone, Elizabeth. “Language and Linguistics; a Special Report: Nicaraguan Sign Language.” National Science Foundation (July 2005). April 21, 2007


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