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Variations/Dialects in ASL

Linguistics and Dialects of American Sign Language

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What variations/dialects exist in American Sign Language?

  • Racial
    • Example seen in Deaf African Americans
  • Gender
  • Ethnic
  • Age

Variations Among The Deaf African American Community

     The African American signing community has been the focus of researchers during recent years (Lucas, et al. 2001).  


Studies have shown

  • differences in the body, movement, mouth movement, and the use of space in signing by African American signers (Lucas, et al. 2001).
  • that ASL users identified a “black signing” but could not explain what made it “black.” 
  • that there exists uniquely black or “ebonic” movements and nonverbal features that occur in the communication in both hearing and Deaf African Americans.
  • that African American signing differs remarkably from Caucasian signing in all areas of structure, not just lexically. (Lucas, et al., 2001).
  • African American signers use the older two-handed variations of signs more than Caucasian signers of the same age (Lucas, et al., 2001).

Gender, Age, and Regional Variations

      Variations are presented through changes in location, direction, and which hand is involved in the presentation of a sign (Lucas, et al., 2001). A signer from New York and a signer from Florida will show variations.  Ethnic communities will not only show their ethnic variation on the language but regional, gender, and age variations as well (Carroll, 2004).  These variations are thought to be a reflection of the residential schools role in facilitating ASL (Lucas, 2003 ).  The generations of students at these schools are responsible for variations seen in ASL.  Evidence shows that each generation added or created change in the language as a way of leaving a mark on the school, and it shows in the graduates from these institutions (Lucas, Bayley, Rose, Wolfe, 2000).


Examples of Gender

  • DeSantis in 1977 witnessed these gender differences between two sign language communities (Lucas, et al., 2001).
    • He used signs that had variations that occur on the hands or at the elbows, such as the words “HELP” and “PUNISH.”  His research analyzed users of French Sign Language in 1975 and users of American Sign Language in 1976.  He found that in both languages men used the hand versions while the women used the elbow variations of the same signs. There was no explanation given for this occurrence (Lucas, et al., 2001).

Significance of Variations/Dialects to Society

How to teach a standard variation to students from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds?

   As an educator never represent dialects/ variations from the standard language as signs of linguistic and cognitive deficiences when teaching students from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds.  Included below are general guidelines that should be followed when teaching standard English(Christian, 1997).

Note: The below guidelines are focused more for a spoken language situation, but they can be modified to teach a student who is Deaf and from another dialet / variation.

  1.  Lessons need to account for the students that they are teaching. 
    • Students who are interested in participating in a certain social group will make an effort to learn the group's language.  A student who has no interest in associating with a certain social group will not put the effort into learning the language.
  2. A lesson should include information about their own dialect, as well as various dialects/variations that exist
    • This allows teachers to demonstrate the integrity of all dialects.  It will help to clarify the relationship between standard and vernacular dialects.  It will show the student practical reasons for learning the standard dialect.
  3. Educators and the companies responsible for developing materials need to understand the differences between standard and vernacular dialects in order to help students learn standard English.

  4. The goal of instruction should be to learn the standard variety of the student's local community, and not some formal dialect of English that is not used in the community (Christian, 1997).



              In the future, as knowledge and recognition of these variations become commonly accepted within the Deaf community, interpreters may be faced with code switching that contains variations not seen before.  During one of the studies, one of the African American signers was codeswitching continuously throughout the interview.  It is believed that ongoing research about this variation will help educate future interpreters thereby promoting success in their role as an interpreter (Lucas, et al. 2001).


Reasons for limitied resources on this Topic


            Published materials on these variations is limited due to the small scope of the Deaf community and the vast number of cultures it encompasses (Lucas, et al., 2001).  In addition, the methods of research deployed have been deficient.  One explanation as to why the Caucasian signers of the Deaf community have limited knowledge of “Black signing” is that it is hidden from them and the rest of the world (Lucas, et al.. 2001). The African American Deaf community has kept their language to themselves due to discrimination from society due to skin color and their racial variations in communication.  This parallels what occurs between African Americans and Caucasians in the Hearing population (Lucas, et al., 2001).

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