The History of American Sign Language

Boy using American Sign Language

American sign language does more than just help those who are deaf and hard-of-hearing communicate effectively. The use of sign language allows people to communicate with expressions and emotions and even encourages better listening behaviors. American sign language (ASL) also helps children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and allows children to communicate before they can speak. In this blog, we take a deeper dive into the history and importance of American Sign Language.

What is American Sign Language?

According to the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), American Sign Language is a visual language that is performed with a combination of movement, placement, and shape of the hands and arms. Facial expressions and body movements are additional components of the language that help further convey a message. It is important to know that ASL is not the universal language for those who are deaf and hard of hearing. ASL has it’s very own grammar rules that are unique to America, while other countries have their own sign language.

When did American Sign Language Start?

Throughout history, humans have been using simple forms of sign language to communicate with one another. However, it wasn’t until the 1800s that American Sign Language took off. According to, ASL can be traced back to 1814 with a minister named Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet who had a deaf daughter. Dr. Gallaudet then took his daughter to the National Institute of Deaf-Mutes in Europe where he met several deaf educators. One of the instructors, Laurent Clerc, returned to America with Gallaudet. Shortly after their return to America, in 1817, they started the American School for the Deaf, the first free deaf school in America.

Throughout the remainder of the 1800s, deaf schools and even colleges began to appear along the east coast. American Sign Language was established as an official language in 1960 when William Stoke, a professor at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. published a dissertation that proved its credibility.

American Sign Language in School

Schools work with students who have special needs to make sure they can communicate their needs and understand them. We work with children on this from the time they are little until the time they graduate from high school. This process can be a challenge for a variety of reasons, and it may be easier to do with some students. There are always going to be some individuals who will struggle with this and we must continue to work on ways to help them.

Children who are unable to talk because they are deaf or hearing impaired may not be understood by someone in school if they do not know American Sign Language (ASL). ASL is key for many of these children to be able to communicate and feel independent. Signing is their language and allows these individuals to express what is on their mind at the moment without writing something down if they are unable to talk. The powerful part of ASL is that you can learn more from the other features. ASL is a visual-gestural language. The hands are important, but so is the face. Every little inflection that is used with eyebrows, head tilt, and body language adds to what the hand motions are expressing. Now imagine not being able to understand this from your student and not having an interpreter.

The Future of ASL

The future of ASL translation is being developed right now by SignAll. SignAll is the first automated sign language-translation tool that will take ASL and translate it into written English. While only in a prototype right now, it will help enable everyday communication with people who use ASL and those who do not. Fully automating this process is difficult because you must be able to incorporate all aspects of ASL. This means the hand movements and other factors like facial expression, ASL registers, prosody, and use of space. To assist with the technology, SignAll has teamed up with Gallaudet University. This university is a private university for the education of deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

Schools with deaf and hearing-impaired students need to keep up on this new wave of technology. Once perfected, SignAll will have many uses within a school. It will further assist students who need to communicate something with an adult who is not fluent in ASL. In addition to this, there is a social connection. It has the potential to help friends of children who use ASL to understand their classmates at the moment. This may also encourage more of the child’s friends to become interested in learning ASL.

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