If you Google ASL or American Sign Language, you will find an unending list of articles and videos. But as with anything else, there is conflicting information all over the internet. How do you determine what is accurate and what is not? A first key factor to pay attention to is the presenter. Is the author Deaf or hearing? What are their credentials? Do they know sign language fluently? It is important to understand the language of the Deaf Community when trying to understand their culture. Let’s start with some basics of ASL grammar.
ASL is NOT English
Often when someone signs in an English word order is confused as American Sign Language (ASL). Some prefer to use an English word order for various reasons. They may feel more comfortable with English because that is what they were raised with or perhaps they are code switching. If sign language is your second language, it may be easier to use your first language’s sentence structure when signing. A sign language user may code switch to “meet in the middle” with someone whose first language is not ASL.
You can pick out words in a foreign language and fit them to the English sentence structure. This, however, may cause a great deal of confusion as it is unnatural. French, Spanish, German, and every other spoken language vary in their natural word order. In the same way, sign language terms can be taken and manipulated into an English word order. But this may cause confusion with the conceptual meaning of the terms.
The purpose of any sign language is to communicate concepts in a visual way instead of in an auditory way. ASL can be described as demonstrating concepts vertically as opposed to spoken languages that are linear or horizontal. Often ASL sentences contain only 2-3 signs per sentence. But each sentence may still be packed with meaning. For example, “We have been sitting here for hours and hours!” This may be signed, “We sit.” The difference is in the face and movement of a sign. The term “sit” in this sentence is moved back to front in a circular motion to show the passing of time while the face shows exasperation with eyes wide open.
Learning ASL grammar, as with learning a foreign language, takes time and effort. The more time you can spend conversing with a first language user of ASL the better you will get. View Additional Resources below for suggestions on where to learn ASL.