ASL University | Bookstore | Catalog | Dictionary | Lessons | Resources | Syllabi | Library

Signed English:

Jay Reynolds
April  28, 2008

Language Choices:  Considering SEE and ASL

            Wouldn't you rather talk to your two-year-old rather than trying to decipher cries? Better still, would you like to be able to talk intelligently and hold a conversation with your toddler before he or she can speak? More and more, parents are discovering that they can in fact communicate with their young children. Teaching your child sign language has a number of side benefits, including earlier speech development, greater aptitude for literature, and better self-esteem, (Porter, 2008). You do not necessarily need to be deaf in order to use a sign language. Sign language comes  in many different forms and combinations. Which one is right for you? In this essay, we will focus on the advantages and disadvantages of two of the most popular forms of sign language: American Sign Language and Signed Exact English.

             American Sign Language (ASL) is "a language of hand gestures and symbols widely used by deaf and hearing-impaired people for communication. ASL has its own grammar rules, and puts words in different order than English" (Kagan & Gall 1998).   ASL is known as a "living language." There is a growing culture of people who are Deaf or hard of hearing, and ASL is the native language of this culture. As the culture grows and evolves, so does the language. This means there is an inherent cultural quality to ASL, so in addition to learning a language, you can also learn about a different culture. Children with short attention spans benefit from ASL because sentences or complete thoughts that otherwise would take several words to convey can be condensed down to a single gesture." (Porter, 2008)   ASL has greater long-term value because it is the official language used by the Deaf community, so if you learn ASL, you can not only talk with your two-year-old, but with your Deaf neighbors, too!

            There are some drawbacks to ASL. Most parents who sign to children are not deaf, thus they themselves do not know ASL as  their native language.  This means both the infant and the parent are trying to learn the language at the same time. Also, ASL has it's own distinct grammar rules, which can cause confusion when transitioning to spoken English.

           The Encyclopedia of Childhood & Adolescence defines Signed Exact English (SEE) as "[a] specific signing system which incorporates word endings and English word order in a specific signing style (Kagan & Gall 1998). Little regard is made for conceptual accuracy, (Porter, 2008).  In other words, SEE's grammar, unlike ASL, is exactly the same as English, which means you will not have to learn the grammar in addition to the signs, and it will be virtually devoid of the Deaf cultural influence. SEE is also good for young children because it slows down adult speech, as the adult has to sign out what they are saying. "They also have longer to process the information because signs (visually) last longer than words and people naturally will slow their speech when it is accompanied by a sign." (Porter, 2008).  Generally, parents will want to sign and say what they want to communicate to their children when using SEE. This gives babies two forms of input (sight and speech) to process the information, which aids the learning process.

            There still are drawbacks to take into consideration. One such drawback is that SEE is not considered a "true language;" it is not generally used by (and is usually considered offensive to) the Deaf community, but rather is English that is signed rather than spoken. One example of the culture shock one can experience after learning SEE and expecting to function in the Deaf community can be seen in the story of Sharelle Goff.  Ms. Goff was taught a combination of SEE and ASL (known as "pidgn sign") in her California home. When she moved to Utah and began getting involved in the local Deaf community, she was shocked to find that she "was unable to communicate clearly with her deaf student peers  (Jillian, 2004)," because they were using ASL, not SEE or pidgn sign. In conclusion, SEE is useful only if you plan on using it to teach and communicate with your young children; if you plan on using a sign language beyond this scope, then you may consider taking up ASL.


Stein, Porter, et al. (2008, Feb. 14). American Sign Language vs. Signed Exact English.  University of Oregon. Retrieved 14 Feb. 2008: <>.

Doria, Jillian. (2004, Apr. 15). UVSC conference helps deaf Utahns. Retrieved 18 Feb. 2008: <>.

Kagan, Jerome and Susan B. Gall (1998). "American Sign Language (ASL)" The Encyclopedia of Childhood & Adolescence. Reed Business Information, Inc., Retrieved 14 Feb. 2008: <>.


Online Classroom Discussion with Dr. Bill Vicars:

Tigie:  I was wondering if Signed English and ASL use the same signs?

DrVicars: Many of the signs are the same but there are some big differences, mostly affixes and initialization.

Affixes are special invented English-specific signs to show concepts like "-ment," "-ness," "-ly," and so forth.

Initialization happens when you take one of the letters of the English gloss of the word and use it as the handshape for the sign. [Gloss is a way of writing about or representing a language in
another language.]

Tigie: Like, family, class, team?

DrVicars: Right Tigie, except you need to realize that a few "invented" signs that were formerly the property of Signed English, have now become accepted in mainstream ASL because of their widespread use. So FAMILY, CLASS, and TEAM are generally accepted as ASL, but many other initialized signs are not (or not yet) accepted as ASL.

Tigie: Hmm, ok thanks

DrVicars: Let me explain a bit more and see if I can make the differences more clear.

Signed English is a broad term that can refer a number of different signing systems. But in general, Signed English systems (and there are several different systems) use a combination of ASL signs, initialized signs, and invented English-specific signs, in English word order. Another system known as SEE (Signing Exact English, and/or the less common reference Seeing Essential English), makes a Herculean effort to represent English on the hands. 

SEE uses a lot more initialization, and also tries to represent the various affixes (suffixes and prefixes like: -ment, -ness, -ly, pre-, etc.) using special signs. We could have an entire course just on the differences, but my suggestion is to remember that most Deaf people are multilingual.

Most of them use a variety of styles according to their circumstances and needs. In the classroom many Deaf learned Signed English from their teacher, in the dorm they learned ASL from their "Dorm-Mother" or "Dorm-Father" [now called dorm counselor] or the older students.


*  Want to help support ASL University?  It's easy DONATE  (Thanks!)

Another way to help is to buy something from Dr. Bill's "Bookstore."

Want even more ASL resources?  Visit the "ASL Training Center!"  (Subscription Extension of ASLU)  

*  Also check out Dr. Bill's channel:

You can learn American Sign Language (ASL) online at American Sign Language University  
ASL resources by    Dr. William Vicars