The origins of American Sign Language (ASL) remain unclear mainly because much of its early development is poorly documented. Signed languages in their premature forms are not preserved. Although researchers can establish the time and the circumstances under which signing was brought to the U.S., still they are not certain about the structure of the languages used by deaf or hearing impaired people before.
In 1779, in his book ‘Observations of a Deaf-Mute’, Pierre Desloges described sign language as used by deaf people in Paris, France. Desloges felt that he had to speak on behalf of deaf people because, at that time, their language was not acknowledged as an official language and therefore it was not used for the education of deaf children. Besides, the descriptions that he provides in the book portray deaf people in France, who naturally use a sign language, which later became known as Old French Sign Language (OFSL). OFSL was used to discuss a broad range of topics, from politics to family and from religion to work. Being transmitted from one generation to another, OFSL had its own syntax and pronunciation and eventually it became recognized by Abbé de L’Epée as appropriate to be used for the education of deaf children.
The contribution of France to the official acceptance of sign language is important not only because it provides us with evidence about its existence, but mainly because the acknowledgement of OFSL was directly related to the development of American Sign Language (ASL) in the United States. The official acceptance of American Sign Language is believed to trace its roots in 1817. Thomas Gallaudet, a pioneer in the education of deaf people and Laurent Clerc, co-founded the first school for deaf people in the United States, at Hartford, Connecticut. While traveling to the States from France, Gallaudet learned the sign language and Clerc learned English. Together, they established what was later acknowledged and certified as the American Sign Language (ASL).
ASL combines hand movements, gestures, body postures facial expressions, and uses visually transmitted sign patterns instead of acoustic sounds. It has its own grammar, sentence order and punctuation rules as well as its own jargon and idiomatic expressions. Besides, factors that affect the variety of usage of ASL are gender, age, and ethnicity.
Today, ASL is broadly used from parents as a means to emphasize on a child’s communication skills. The earlier a child is exposed to sign language, the better vocabulary, reading and spelling skills are developed along with increased IQ scores, and enhanced creativity. Often, a deaf child born to deaf parents acquires ASL naturally, similarly to a hearing child, who picks up spoken language from hearing parents. Yet, deaf children born to hearing parents who are not experienced with ASL are introduced to sign language along with their parents.