In my last Learning Project post I noted the most common question I received from friends and family in response to finding out I was learning ASL: is there just one variation of sign language? As I said in that post, I knew there were likely other variations but I did not know much about them. I decided to look into those variations and also learn a bit of the history behind ASL. Here is what I found!
I found that in Richard Brooks’ “A Guide to the Different Types of Sign Language Around the World” there were seven, of 138-300, common sign languages listed as being used throughout the world that he broke down. They are:
- British, Australian, and New Zealand Sign Language (BANZSL)
- French Sign Language (LSF)
- American Sign Language (ASL)
- Irish Sign Language (ISL)
- Chinese Sign Language (CSL or ZGS)
- Brazilian Sign Language (Libras)
- Indo-Pakistani Sign Language
Each of these, and the many other sign languages, have their own variations. For example, here is the BANZSL alphabet:
Now, trying to find a complete history of sign languages was a little trickier. What I did learn is that non-verbal communication has been used since the beginning of verbal languages. This made sense to me, there are some signals that we can understand mean a certain thing such as waving for someone to ‘come here’. I figured it would be nearly impossible to find the root for all forms of sign language and so decided to focus on the origin of American Sign Language. I read several origins, comparing and contrasting the information they had. The information I am sharing was taken mostly from Dawn Sign Press’s page “History of American Sign Language” because it only included the story behind ASL, making it easier to navigate. If you are interested in learning the history behind sign languages all together, I would recommend checking out GoReact’s “The History of Sign Language”.
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, interested in learning how the French were teaching sign language at one of their schools, traveled to Europe in 1815. He attended the LSF school in Paris and met Laurent Clerc who he asked to return with him to America to set up a school for the deaf. Clerc was a deaf teacher who had graduated from the French sign school. Gallaudet and Clerc opened the first American school for the deaf in 1817 in Connecticut called the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons (now called the American School for the Deaf).
31 students attended the school by the end of the first year, including some from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts and Henniker, New Hampshire, both of which were deaf communities who had their own form of sign language. These sign languages brought by students from home, Clerc’s LSF, and other signs created at the school were what combined to create the ASL that we have today. Those students who graduated from this school went on to create their own schools and spread this language across America.
Today, deaf children are being integrated into public schools rather than attending residential schools specifically for the deaf. ASL has become an established language and continues to thrive today.