ASL as a Language

by NC ASLTA and NCAD Ad Hoc Committee*


American Sign Language (ASL) is one of the most widely used languages in the United States.

ASL is primarily used by Deaf and hard of hearing Americans and Canadians. In addition, ASL is used by: 1) hearing children of deaf parents; 2) hearing siblings and relatives of the deaf, and 3) hearing adults who are becoming deaf and are learning ASL from other deaf individuals. Additionally, a growing population of hearing, second-language students are learning ASL in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary classrooms.

ASL is a visual language. It has its own grammatical rules and semantics.

ASL is deeply rooted in the Deaf Community and Culture. Early sign language was already in use in Colonial America, notably in Martha’s Vineyard Island where many deaf people once lived. In 1817, Laurent Clerc, the first deaf teacher in American came from Paris, France to Hartford, Connecticut with Thomas Gallaudet to set up the first school for the deaf. He used French Sign Language in his teachings which led to the standardization of early American Sign Language into modern American Sign Language. The folklore, the history of Deaf people, cultural values and arts are expressed and preserved through ASL.

There are approximately 250,000 – 500,000 ASL users in USA and Canada (Baker and Cokely, 1980). Most of them use ASL as their primary language.

At least thirty-five (35) States have recognized ASL as a modern language for public schools. Hundreds of colleges/universities (at least 750, Cokely 1986) in the United States are offering ASL classes. Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, NC offers a four-year bachelor program in ASL.

Abundant resources on ASL research, evaluation, curriculum, literature, books and videotapes are available for students and teachers.

Qualified ASL teachers are certified by a national professional organization, the American Sign Language Teachers Association (ASLTA). There are state organizations affiliated with ASLTA. Check the ASLTA website at for more information about state and local chapters. The ASLTA, Chapters of ASLTA and some universities (e.g., Gallaudet University, Columbia University, McDaniel College (formerly known as Western Maryland College), University of Rochester and Keuka College in New York) offer training in teaching ASL.


ASL benefits:

  • hearing students and deaf/hard of hearing students in mainstream programs at public schools and colleges/universities to improve communication and interaction deaf students at schools for the deaf
  • many deaf and hard of hearing students through an inclusion of ASL in the educational programs which help them learning English better through use of ASL as an instructional tool
  • hearing families of deaf/hard of hearing children by improving quality of family communication and interaction at home through better understanding and acceptance of ASL
  • hearing children of deaf parents by improving their family communication and interaction through better understanding and acceptance of ASL
  • hearing and deaf/hard of hearing employees by improving their ability to communicate and work together, and developing better awareness and sensitivity to the deaf and hard of hearing
  • deaf and hard of hearing people interested in becoming ASL teachers by providing more job opportunities in teaching
  • hearing people interested in becoming interpreters for the deaf and hard of hearing people. There is a great
  • need to increase the availability of qualified interpreters in the community (e.g. hospitals, courts, governmental agencies, community activities, local/county/state legislatures) and mainstream programs in schools and colleges/universities.
  • professionals in public and private agencies and educational settings serving the deaf/hard of hearing people (e.g. teachers, counselors, consultants, therapists, specialists) by enhancing their ability to understand and communicate with the deaf and hard of hearing.


* In 1997, the North Carolina Association of the Deaf (NCAD) and the North Carolina Chapter of the American Sign Language Teachers Association (NC ASLTA) worked cooperatively to develop the language and supporting documentation for the ASL Bill.



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Gannon, J., “Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America,” MAD Publishers, Silver Spring, MD, 1981.

Grace, N., “Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language,” Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1985.

Holcomb, R., Holcomb, S. and Holcomb, T., “Deaf Culture: Our Way,” Dawn Sign Press, San Diego, CA, 1994.

Humphries, T., Padden, C. and O’Rourke, T., “A Basic Course in American Sign Language,” T.J. Publishers, Silver Spring, MD, 1994.

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Smith, C., Lentz, E. and Mikos, K., “Signing Naturally,” Dawn Sign Press, San Diego, CA.,1988.

Sacks, 0., “Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf,” Univ. of Calif. Press, CA, 1990.

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