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The History of American Sign Language

American Sign Language (ASL) is the most commonly used method of communication by deaf people in America and many other parts of the world. Some may find it odd that even though people in America, the UK and Australia all speak English, ASL is actually quite different from the sign language used in those countries. ASL is actually derived from French sign language and contains many of the same signs and gestures. It is one of the most perfected signing systems used today, but that was not always so. While signing itself has a long history, the language was not used extensively in America until the early 19th century. Today, ASL features a fingered alphabet and large vocabulary where different hand gestures are used to indicate different words or ideas.

Some scholars believe that sign language may predate verbal language, but the organized system that we see today was first developed back in the seventeenth century. It was in 1620 that Juan Pablo de Bonet published the very first book on teaching the language to the deaf, and it contained the first manual alphabet. Over a hundred years later, in 1755, a Parisian by the name of Michel de L’Epee opened the first free school for deaf people, and it was here that he taught the deaf how to communicate with the hearing through a system of hand gestures. The concept was not new to France- L’Epee actually came up with his language after watching a group of deaf people signing to each other. He learned their language and then added his own creative influence, creating a simple-yet-effective signed version of the French language. This language was revolutionary, and it allowed the deaf to communicate accurately with the hearing.

In 1778, a German named Samuel Heinicke was doing his own work on signing. It was he who was credited for perfecting the concept of lip-reading, and he developed a comprehensive system that allowed the deaf and the hearing to communicate with maximum effectiveness. Heinicke’s system involved using every method possible in order to communicate hand gestures, finger spelling, lip-reading, speech, pictures, and more.

It wasn’t long before sign language was brought across the Atlantic. While different forms of signing were being used by various Native American tribes, their methods never really caught on with the increasing number of immigrants on American land. It was the minister Thomas Gallaudet who was dedicated to introducing European sign language to the Americas, and he did so with the help of Laurent Clerc, a Parisian sign instructor who was deaf himself. The first American school for the deaf was opened in Connecticut in 1817. By 1863, there were twenty-two different deaf schools throughout the states, and more would continue to open over the years. Today, it is easier than ever to get sign language education in America. There are a myriad of different schools, and you can even learn the language over the internet, something which truly makes it easy for deaf people to increase their signing knowledge.


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