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Linguistics and Dialects of American Sign Language

Home | Introduction | Vocabulary | Evidence of Misdiagnosis | Identifying a Disorder in Student's from a Linguistically Diverse Background | Deaf Culture | History of ASL | ASL Timeline | Variations/Dialects in ASL | ASL:standardization? | Standardization | Bibliography

      Imagine entering the world without hearing and being sent to school with other children who are deaf.  For the first time you discover a form of communication that allows you to convey your thoughts and feelings with other children your age.  Now, try to envision what it would be like to discover that what has brought communication to you is not even considered a language.  Imagine growing up and realizing that no one has taken time to look at this language nor studied it like other forms of verbal communication.  Then, think what emotions would be evoked when you were told for the first time that your method of exchanging ideas is unacceptable and suddenly you have to try to fit into a society that doesn’t understand you.  Older Deaf adults experienced this in the nineteenth century (Padden and Humphries, 2005).




    During the beginning parts of the 1800s, an observer could walk into a residential school for the Deaf and hard of hearing and observe the use of American Sign Language (ASL) or manually coded English by students and teachers.  After the Milan Conference took place in the 1800s, sign language was banned in schools throughout the nation (Berke, 2000).  This conference was a rude awakening to the Deaf community throughout the world and for the first time they realized a need for members of the Deaf culture and ASL supporters in the United States to defend their language.  In the United States, this need was demonstrated by the number of supporters becoming members of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) (Berke, 2000).  The Milan Conference and the movement towards Oralism created a large wedge between the hearing and Deaf Culture that still persists today.  These two philosophies Oralism and Manualism, continuously are debated by educators of the Deaf and hard of hearing.  The Deaf culture got another shock when Gallaudet University, a University for the Deaf/hard of hearing, tried to elect a hearing president who did not know sign language (DPN, 2003).  The Deaf Culture surprised the nation with an overwhelming response, changing the selection from a hearing president to the first Deaf president at the University (DPN, 2003).


Research on ASL


    William Stokoe is the first individual in history who really analyzed ASL in the 1950s, and validated its existence as a language.  Prior to this, several dictionaries discussing the vocabulary of signs were made, but none specifically focusing on it as a language.  Two major books; Sign Language Structure by Stokoe, in 1960, and The Signs of Language by Klima and Bellugi, in 1979; guided the epic analysis journey of ASL as a language (McNeill and Duncan, 2005).  After Stokoe, linguists began to take notice of another language that had been left behind in his studying, and for the first time ASL was recognized as a language; and demonstrated that it is not just a code for spoken English (Brentari, 2001).

   Although, the bulk of sign language research was conducted during 1970 to 1980s (Emmorey and Lane, 2000) it is only recently that linguists have really started to focus on the need to study the linguistic variations that exist in this language (Bayley, Lucas,and Rose, 2000).   Research on the different aspects of language and culture is important to educators, linguists, and the community.  The information and knowledge that comes from research can promote awareness and acceptance; new methods of instructions; and new ideas of how language develops.

Statements of Questions
    This study revolves around three questions in order to maintain structure and focus.  The following questions will be answered in this paper and website. (1) How long has it taken to develop linguistics of American Sign Language and why did it take that long? (2) What different variation/dialects exist in American Sign Language? (3) Is there a standard American Sign Language?


     As language teachers, educators of the Deaf and hard of hearing must attempt to provide a form of language for children that enter the classroom.  As teachers, it is our role to observe individuals with possible language disorders and find ways to work around those disabilities to create a child whom can live, function, and succeed in a hearing world.  As educators, we’re surrounded with many different modes of communication and it is our job to understand all of them so we can place the child in the best educational setting.

  The author of this study hopes to use literature and reasoning to bring the knowledge of the variations that exist in sign language and implications in educating our children to the foreground of the reader's mind. By knowing if, there is a standard for American Sign Language; educators can help children grow not only in their English use; but also in their signing to be knowledgeable users of their own language.

Date Created: May 15, 2006 Time: 10:52 pm
Date Modified: June 8, 2006