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Signing Exact English:

 Andrew Hoffman
April 17, 2008

Signed Exact English

Manually coded English (MCE) is the term for systems such as Signed Exact English (SEE) which are used to communicate English non-verbally. All forms of MCE are attempts to exactly represent the grammar and vocabulary of the English language by placing signs in English order and including suffixes and prefixes many of which are not provided in ASL. Examples of MCEs are Signed Exact English (SEE), Manual English, Signed English, LOVE and others.

Signed Exact English (SEE) was developed in 1972 by Gerilee Gustason. SEE uses American Sign Language signs and additional items including pronouns, plurals, possession, and the verb "to be". The thinking behind creating SEE is that a manual language that is based on English would make it easier for a deaf person to learn how to speak English. SEE was designed to be used in an educational setting, where the focus is on English as a first language. "It is more likely to be used by people who cannot hear than by members of the Deaf community" (Gustason&Zawolkow, 2006).

"There are huge difference between American Sign Language and Signing Exact English. American Sign Language is a language in which people communicate visually" (Deister, 2008). American Sign Language is a language with its own grammar including gestures and facial expressions. SEE is not a language; it is a way to sign the English language. This fundamental difference is a source of controversy.

One controversy concerning SEE and ASL is whether someone who needs a manual language would be better off with SEE or with ASL. This controversy exists despite the encouragement of the authors of SEE to not consider SEE as a single solution. They write, "Signing Exact English, (SEE 2), is NOT a replacement for ASL and is meant for use by parents and teachers of English (Gustason&Zawolkow, 2006). Proponents of ASL point to the fact that it's possible to become skilled in both English and ASL, without signing in SEE.

The different types of manually coded English have caused people to question which sign language is best to use when teaching Deaf students. Many English teachers consider sign languages that exactly represent the English language, like Signing Exact English (SEE), to be the best languages to teach Deaf students. But not all agree with this position. "Many liberal educators of the Deaf, however, believe and know that American Sign Language (ASL) is the best visual language to teach Deaf students" (Deister, 2008).

There is also a controversy about using ASL, SEE, or no manual communication. One opinion is that if a deaf child has hearing parents and uses ASL, then the parents need to learn another language. If a parent uses SEE with their deaf child then all they have to do is learn signs and keep the same English order. The third option that some hearing parents pick is oral communication. I believe that this debate should not be focused on the parents but on what is best for the child and the child's self-esteem. Children need to feel acceptance. Hearing parents will often confuse acceptance with speaking English even if that places their child in between two groups (hearing and the deaf). Not using ASL means difficulty for the child in being accepted by the Deaf community since the child doesn't know their language. Not speaking English on the same level as their piers means difficulty in being accepted by the hearing community. Using SEE as a device to lean English doesn't help the child to be accepted in either community. "In order to be accepted into the Deaf community, you should beusing ASL and not Signed Exact English (SEE)" (Deister, 2008).

Many believe that Signing Exact English is an attempt to "help" the deaf community by eliminating their language and replacing it with "proper" English thereby bringing them closer to conformance with the non-deaf community. Person to person communications should be designed to convey a message in the most efficient manner possible between the people involved. It needs to be efficient in order to make the best use of everyone's time and attention. SEE takes the direct communications method of ASL and fills it with prepositions and articles that slows down communications and makes it more difficult to follow a conversation. SEE might be good tool for teaching English and if it is SEE should be limited to classroom environments. The authors of the SEE agree with this. They write, "The stress on the importance of exposing the child to English if we wish him or her to acquire the language easily must not be interpreted as a rejection of American Sign Language" (Gustason&Zawolkow, 2006). The authors do not advocate the use of SEE to the exclusion of ASL. Instead, they stress the study and use of both, "We encourage a study of and acceptance of both ASL and manual English" (Gustason&Zawolkow, 2006). Maybe there is room for both SEE and ASL as long as it is understood that ASL remains the primary language of the Deaf community.


Andrew, J. F., DeVille, G., & Winograd, P. (1993). Deaf children reading fables: Using ASL summaries to improve reading comprehension. American Annals of the Deaf, 139 (3), 378-385.

Deister, Kelli. ((2008). Differences between ASL and SEE. Deafness Site. BellaOnline. Retrieved 18, Mar. 2008:

Gustason, G. & Zawolkow, Er. (2006). Signing Exact English. Los Alamitos: Modern Signs Press, ix-xii.

Schlesinger, L. M. (1994). Hearing parents can influence deaf children's self-esteem. American Annals of the Deaf, 140 (4), 144-152.


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