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American Sign Language: Deaf History

(2) Also see: History 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

Jacob Lewis

American Sign Language: Past, Present and Future 

Sign language has been around for as long as the reason for its existence: deafness.  Deafness, in the early centuries of American life caused many problems for those that were deaf.  Doctors did not understand the root causes of deafness and books were rare.  Until the most recent years, doctors finally understand why deafness occurs and the deaf communities in the world today are being respected and admired, with the aid of American Sign Language. 

 In the early 1500s, people who were deaf were overlooked and neglected.  Nobody respected them because they were unable to communicate with the rest of the world.  This all changed in the 16th century when an Italian physician, Geronimo Cardano, declared that the deaf community should be taken care of and educated on how to communicate with the world.  He added that the deaf could be taught to communicate their thoughts and ideas through pictures and symbols rather than words and phrases.  This proclamation compelled Juan Pablo de Bonet to create and publish the first book on sign language in 1620 (Butterworth & Flodin, 1995).  The concept and idea of educating the deaf took off like wild fire, and spread throughout France.  In Paris, in 1755, Abbe Charles Michel de L'Eppe created the first sign language school that was at no cost to the students.  His ideas led to the creation of fingerspelling, and gestures that represented whole phrases or words. 

ASL has many roots.  Not only is it rooted in the French ideas, but also the ideas of the Great Plains Indians in America (Butterworth & Flodin, 1995).  The man responsible for bringing sign language to light in the United States is Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.  Gallaudet studied the French ways and returned to America in 1817 where he founded the first school for the deaf in America, near present day Hartford, Connecticut.  In the following years deaf schools opened up in New York and Pennsylvania, with a total of 22 schools across the United States by 1863.  In 1864, the biggest milestone for the deaf community occurred in Washington, D.C.  The only liberal arts college for the deaf in the U.S. and world was founded.  The college was appropriately named Gallaudet College, after Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.

American Sign Language Today

            Today ASL is the fourth most spoken language in the U.S.  The ASL system is the most comprehensive, complete, and expressive systems of signed language in the world today.  The ASL system has allowed the gap of communication between the deaf community and the rest of the world to be bridged.  Interest in sign language continues to grow with more and more people wanting to learn this unique form of communication.  Many colleges, universities, churches and community centers across the United States offer sign language classes to better accommodate the ever-growing demand for the knowledge of sign language.  American Sign Language has even been considered a foreign language due to the fact that is a visual and gestural language rather than an aural and oral language (Wilcox, 2001).

The Future of American Sign Language

            ASL is starting to be referred to as a foreign language.  The reason for this growing idea stems from colleges and universities recognizing ASL as a fulfillment for foreign language credits in many college degree programs.  Gary Olsen, former Executive Director of the National Association of the Deaf, referred to this notion of ASL as a foreign language as "an American ground swell" (Bella Online, 1999).  Sign language classes are growing nationwide with increased demand for this "simplified" language.  The future of ASL is bright and vibrant with the number of people in the deaf community growing everyday, as well as the number of ASL classes that occur on a daily basis.  ASL is now being recognized by many schools across the U.S. as a foreign language, and more schools are jumping on the idea everyday, so ASL will be around for a very long time.  After all, ASL is the fourth most spoken language in the United States today, but who knows, it might move up on this list.

            American sign language is rooted in the ideas of many French doctors and educators.  ASL combines gestures and fingerspelling to make sentences and phrases that enable the deaf community to communicate with the rest of the world.  It is the most complete system of signed language in all of the world and will continue to be this way throughout its existence.  ASL has grown tremendously in popularity over the years and will only help bridge the communication gap between two very vibrant cultures in the United States and the world.


"History of American Sign Language." (1999). <>

Butterworth, R. & Flodin, M. (1995). "History of American Sign Language." The Pedigree Visual Dictionary of Signing. Berkley.

Wilcox, S. (2001). "American Sign Language as a Foreign Language." <>

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