Using language to express and understand each other is the corner stone of communication. It’s how we learn and grow. While most people equate language with speech, the two are not the same.
In fact, even hearing people use non-verbal ways to communicate with each other every day: facial expressions, body language, eye contact, personal space, and touch. Then there are hand gestures. Hand gestures are one of the most popular way for us to get our point across; they can even help us form clearer thoughts, be more descriptive, and express our temperament.
For those who are deaf or hard of hearing though, using your hands to communicate takes on a whole new meaning. Despite the popular misconception, there is no universal sign language. Sign languages are just as diverse as verbal languages.
Believe it or not, there are over 135 different sign languages used around the world. Some of the more popular forms of sign language include: American Sign Language (ASL), Australian Sign Language (Auslan), British Sign Language (BSL), French Sign Language (Langue des signes française, LSF), and Quebec Sign Language (Langue des signes québécoise or Langue des signes du Québec (LSQ).
Each sign language is different. Someone who knows ASL may not understand BLS or Auslan.
ASL is the primary form of sign language used in the U.S. and English Canada. It is a complete, natural language that functions the same as a spoken language does, with its own unique grammar, rules for pronunciation, word order, and word formation. As many as 500,000 people in North America use ASL to communicate with one another.
ASL is expressed using different hand movement and facial expressions. Most people are familiar with fingerspelling; each letter is formed using a distinct handshape. The ASL fingerspelling alphabet is made up of 22 different handshapes, which used with certain movements and positions, represent the 26 letters of the English alphabet.
While ASL might use a hand gesture to represent a word, fingerspelling is used for proper names, places, titles, organizations, brands, or to indicate the English word for something.
There is a lot of room to personalize the use of ASL. Case in point, ASL has regional accents and dialects. Depending on where a user lives, they will have their own variations in the rhythm of signing, pronunciation, signs used, and even slang. And, just like a spoken language, gender and age can also affect how ASL is used.
There is also more to ASL than hand signs. ASL also uses body language and facial expressions to express emotion and grammar. Using the wrong one could result in you saying something different than what you intended to.
You’re Never Too Young or Old to Learn ASL
It’s true. You’re never too young or old to learn ASL.
For a child, the stages of learning ASL is the same as those for a spoken language. A deaf child born to parents who are deaf and use ASL will learn ASL as naturally as a hearing child does a spoken language.
That said, the vast majority of deaf children, 90%, are born to parents who hear. That’s why it’s important for a deaf child born to hearing parents to take ASL classes and learn to communicate as early as possible.
The earlier children are exposed to ASL, the better their language and cognitive skills along with social development will become. It’s also important for hearing parents to take classes to become fluent in ASL.
While children have the capability to learn ASL fast, the ability to learn and process ASL does not diminish with age. Learning ASL no matter how old you are will help you communicate with others, feel less isolated, and more empowered.
Deaf & Hear Alberta offers a wide variety of books, games, and DVDs to help those of every age learn ASL. If you want to learn in a group setting with your peers, we provide ASL classed in both Calgary and Edmonton. All of these classes are taught by qualified deaf instructors whose first language is ASL.