A Brief History of American Sign Language (ASL)

ASL is a manual language or visual language, meaning that the information is expressed not with combinations of sounds but with combinations of hand shapes, palm orientations, movements of the hands, arms and body, location in relation to the body, and facial expressions. ASL is not a written language. There is no one-to-one correspondence between words in ASL and English, and much of the inflectional modulation of ASL signs is lost. ASL is used natively and predominantly by the Deaf and hard-of-hearing of the United States and Canada.

Abbe Charles Michel de L’Epee established the first free public school for the deaf in Paris in 1771. L’Epee educated the deaf using a standard sign language that he created. L’Epee’s standard sign language eventually became French Sign Language and was widely used in Europe. The first American school for the deaf was established in 1817 by Laurent Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. They are often credited as the inventors of American Sign Language. Like Abbe Charles Michel de L’Epee’s school, children from all over the country traveled to attend this school, bringing their home-signs with them. These home-signs, combined with French Sign Language, became American Sign Language.

Spoken language is not the natural language of the deaf. They naturally defaulted to their native language–sign language. Though no one person invented the whole of sign language, Thomas Gallaudet is regarded as the major figure in its widespread adoption.

From its synthesis at this first public school for the deaf in North America, the language went on to grow. Many of the graduates of this school went on to found schools of their own in many other states, thus spreading the methods of Gallaudet and Clerc and serving to expand and standardize the language; as with most languages, though there are regional variations. After being strongly established in the United States, later in the 19th century the use of “sign”—what we now call ASL– was suppressed, socially and pedagogically. Many considered it to not even be a language at all. This situation was changed by William Stokoe, a professor of English hired at Gallaudet University in 1955. He immediately became fascinated by ASL and began serious study of it. Eventually, through publication in linguistics journals of articles containing detailed linguistic analysis of ASL, he was able to convince the scientific mainstream that ASL was indeed a natural language on a par with any other.

Today American Sign Language interpreters offer services in a varieties of fields, catering to each and every need of the hearing impaired community—job interviews, funerals, weddings, legal matters, school classes, and Vegas shows are just some of the various times when ASL interpreters are utilized to facilitate communication with the hearing impaired.

Sign language, since it is not spoken, is in a class unto itself. The interpreters train rigorously, and must keep their hands and arms well-rested and toned in order to keep their performance sharp, and their muscles agile. Sign language interpreters often work in pairs to allow for frequent breaks so they do not develop carpel tunnel syndrome or other, various hand cramps, muscle spasms, etc. Sign language interpreters are also, often very visible and recognizable within their local hearing impaired community, and have a special notoriety and reverence given to them for their work.

To say that American Sign Language is unique and special in relation to the other languages provided by American Language Services, is an understatement—it is a necessity to help a community of people live and function in the mainstream world. No other language is so unique; and as languages come and go in the modern world, one language is sure to stand the test of time—of the times—American Sign Language. Since 1992, American Language Services ® has provided ASL interpreters in every major market and most other markets in the United States as well as around the world. Our ASL interpreters are experienced, knowledgeable and highly accomplished. Some of their most recent activities include a US Coast Guard security response seminar in Virginia, and a US Department of Agricultural meeting in Washington DC; on the west coast, ASL services for a major student meeting for DeVry University in Encino, CA; a public educational meeting for the Lennox Unified School District in Lennox, CA; a public forum on pre-K child development for First5LA in Los Angeles, as well as a class on emergency preparedness for REI Inc. in Las Vegas.

Our depth of local talented certified, qualified and experienced interpreters is crucial in reducing our costs by eliminating expensive travel, hotel and other logistic arrangements. American Language Services ASL interpreters are a talented group, consisting of credentialed professionals who are part of a vast resource base. We have a skilled and friendly staff to help fulfill your requests promptly and cost effectively. Please contact us for a quote or to place an order today.


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