Ami Bangladeshi

Ami Bangladeshi

Ami Bangladeshi

History of American Sign Language

American Sign Language, like other sign languages that have developed in other countries, has a long and storied history. And like many other sign languages, American Sign Language’s roots are somewhat cloudy and obscure. The language was born before it was actually documented as a language. People used it before it became officially acknowledged. Once the language was recognized, educators and historians worked to reconstruct its development as far as possible. The roots seem to begin in eighteenth century France.

For centuries, deaf persons were assumed to be unteachable. Deaf children were not allowed to attend school with hearing students. Schools specifically for the deaf were founded in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They focused on attempting to teach hearing impaired children to speak, read lips, and master their native language. Deaf persons worked hard at these tasks, but when socializing or working outside of the school, they developed informal signs and used them to communicate.

One such system of signing was used in France and was highly developed by the 1770’s. The system of signs was taught by one deaf person to another and used around the area. When persons who knew the signs met, they shared new signs and so spread and developed the system. Educators, however, insisted that the signs could not be considered a true language, because they did not comply with the grammatical rules of French. Schools continued to teach by the oral method, with the goal of teaching as much traditional language to students as possible. The informal sign system grew and flourished in much the same manner as nonstandard dialects around the world are maintained and taught outside of the main educational system. They are preserved and used by speakers in informal situations and passed down through family and social ties.

In 1771, a French author named Abbé Deschamps analyzed the French system of signs and proclaimed that it was simply a system of motions that had been standardized. He felt it had no value, however, in the education of deaf children. His book prompted a deaf bookbinder, Pierre Desloges, to write a rebuttal. Desloges’s book told of his observations of deaf siblings who used this system of signs. He argued that this was not simply a system of signs, but a true language in its own right. The signed language had its own syntax and system of tense markers, just as any other language. They just happened to be different than French, and so educators had not recognized the system as a language.

A milestone occurred in France in 1771, when a young educator named l'Epée opened the first free school for deaf children in the country. He decided that the French signed system could be useful in educating students, and departed from the traditional oral method so long used. He did not go so far as to admit that the system was truly a language, though. He chose to build on the existing system by adding his own signs and changing the word order to make the signed language conform to French grammar. Thus, a language that could have been called Signed Exact French was born.

By the early 1800’s, l'Epée’s methods were the talk of the deaf educational system in Europe. Teachers from the school traveled throughout Europe giving demonstrations of their methods. In 1816, an American Congregationalist minister, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, traveled to England to observe deaf education in that country. He met with l'Epée’s successors, Abbe Roche Ambroise Sicard and Laurent Clerc, who were demonstrating their methods. Intrigued, Gallaudet returned to France and studied them more closely.

Gallaudet eventually convinced Clerc to come to America with him, and the two of them started the first school for the deaf in the United States: the American Asylum at Hartford, Connecticut. Clerc, who was a well-educated deaf man himself, taught the French sign system to Gallaudet while they traveled to this country. Working together, the two men modified the French system and changed it to accommodate English forms and grammar. This was an early form of Signed Exact English, which is still in use to this day. Signed Exact English, with its strict adherence to English grammatical forms, was very tedious and took a long time to convey messages. It did, however, use the same structure and forms as English, including articles, word endings, and the structure of prepositional phrases.

The two men used these “Methodical Signs,” as they were called, in the classrooms of the American Asylum. Even as they taught, though, they noted that students used a different system of signs when speaking informally amongst themselves. Teachers were even encouraged to master both sign systems, though Gallaudet and Clerc did not go so far as to call the second system a “language.” Instead, they compared it to the Signed Exact English system that they used for instruction and pointed out the differences. Over time, however, the signs from the formal system used for education and those from the informal system intermixed and became what we know as American Sign Language today.

Linguists who have studied American Sign Language have pronounced it a fully functional language in its own right. Research in the latter part of the twentieth century allowed scientists to conclude that American Sign Language meets all of the definitive qualities of a true language, including specific rules, syntax, grammar, and changes made over time as it is shared by a distinct community. It has all of the characteristics of a true language. This sign system directly relates gestures and concepts. It bypasses the connection made in Signed Exact English that bridges concepts to words to signs. Native signers who use American Sign Language have been proven to process thoughts in the language, just as most native speakers of oral languages think in those languages for the rest of their lives.

It is interesting to note that deaf persons from other countries continue to have their own sign languages that are standardized within their own regions. American Sign Language, while acknowledged to be one of the most complete and comprehensive sign systems in the world, is far from universal. It can be as difficult for deaf persons to understand signs from another country as it is for hearing persons to understand the different languages.

American Sign Language has made steady gains in respectability, and is often the language of choice for children who were born deaf or who became deaf before learning English. Signed Exact English has more connection to English and continues to be taught to students in schools, though American Sign is now also used. American Sign Language has also gained the respectable status at the high school and collegiate levels, as it is increasingly taught as an option to fulfill foreign language requirements. The educational world is at last acknowledging what the deaf community has known for many years: American Sign Language is a separate and distinct language in its own right.

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