American Sign Language

What You Need to Know

Don’t forget to check out our free American Sign Language online classes where you can start learning sign language!

The National Center for Health Statistics estimates that 28 million Americans (about 10% of the population) have some degree of hearing loss. About 2 million of these 28 million people are classified as deaf (they can’t hear everyday sounds or speech even with a hearing aid). Only about 10% of these 2 million people were born deaf. The other 90% became deaf later in life.


The natural language of around 500,000 deaf people in the US and Canada is American Sign Language (ASL). A “natural” language is a language that is learned as a first language in childhood. However, not all deaf people learn ASL as their first language. Many use it as their second language and some only use a little ASL, if at all.

Nonetheless, many hearing people are fluent in ASL. Sign language has become more and more popular in recent years and many hearing people are registering for high school and college ASL classes. A recent estimate claims that around 13 million people have some level of proficiency in sign language. That makes American Sign Language the third most commonly used language in the US!

The most common misconception about ASL is that it is a signed version of English. ASL is not English at all. ASL is a distinct language with it’s own syntax and grammar and has been developed over hundreds of years by deaf people as a means of communication. It is also just as capable as English or any other language of communicating abstract or complex ideas.

ASL signs are generally used to convey ideas and concepts rather than actual words. One sign may represent many ideas, so facial expressions and body language are essential to convey the full meaning of the sign. There may be some lip movement, but speech is not used when signing. Just like in English, there are also basic sign language elements. One of the elements, Fingerspelling, is used primarily to indicate places and people. There are also sign language symbols that have been developed in order to “write” sign language.

Word order is very flexible in ASL. For example, the sentence “I am hungry” may be signed as “I hungry I,” “I hungry,” or “Hungry I.” Articles (a, an, and the) are not signed. Different grammatical forms for nouns, adjectives, and adverbs are also not distinguished. For example, “hungry,” “hunger,” and “hungrily” are all signed the same. The meaning must be found in the context.

Deaf people who use ASL see this language as not only a means of communication, but a source of cultural unity and pride. Read more about the linguistic bond of ASL in my Deaf Community article.

What is Sign Language?

Sign language is a visual language that uses gestures and handshapes to represent concepts or ideas. Sign language is actually a broad term that describes many visual languages that have different grammar and syntax rules but use the same basic signs.

At one end of the sign language spectrum is American Sign Language. ASL is a real language (like English) with it’s own grammar and syntax.

At the other end of the spectrum is Manually Coded English. Manually Coded English uses ASL signs, but has the same grammar and syntax of English (it is NOT a real language).

The balance between these two is Pidgin Sign English. Like Manually Coded English, PSE uses English word order with ASL signs. However, not all the English words are signed. This is also NOT a real language because it does not have its own distinct grammar and syntax.

You can also download the free sign language chart so you can get to know some of the most common signs used in everyday ASL conversation.

Don’t forget to check out our free American Sign Language courses.