___ I am able to define
the term ASL ___ I know the
handshapes used in ASL.
___ I am able to
my name in ASL
___ I am able to count to five
in ASL (numbers) ___ I am able to briefly
history of ASL ___ I am able to briefly
state the gist of
Deaf Culture ___ I have a basic
idea of the meaning of the difference between ASL and
Signed English ___ I have a basic
idea of the meaning of
(contact signing) ___ I am able to recognize and
sign the vocabulary for this lesson (see below) ___ I am able to recognize
and sign the practice
for this lesson (see below)
___ I have done a practice
___ I have checked with my instructor regarding how and where to
take any graded quizzes.
Dear ASL Heroes, Allow me to share with you this bit of information from an
article in Perspectives in Education and Deafness:
"There are more than 500,000 words in the English language, but
a person who masters only 250 words will recognize more than
two-thirds of all words shown in television captions—provided
the 250 words are those that are most frequently used. Equally
dramatic, a beginning reader could be taught just 10 words—the,
you, to, a, I, and, of, in, it, that—and then recognize more
than one out of every five words. Mastery of the top 79 words
means being able to read half of all words captioned."
Source: Perspectives in Education and Deafness, Volume 16,
Number 1, September/October 1997
What if we were to apply that same concept to learning sign
The main series of lessons in the ASL University curriculum are
based on accelerated language acquisition techniques that make
use of "word frequency" research. (What are the most common concepts
and words used in everyday communication?)
I took the most frequently used concepts and translated them
into their ASL equivalents and embedded them into the lessons
starting with the highest frequency of use
Thus the lessons are designed to help a student reach
communicative competence very quickly-- based on science
combined with over two decades of real world teaching experience.
The order in which content is introduced is a balance between
"functions" (what you want to do or accomplish) and "language frequency"
(what you most often say to others to accomplish those
functions). Thus while
some of the lessons may
seem to be random, in actuality each vocabulary concept was
specifically selected to expedite (speed up) the rate at
which you can actually use the language for everyday
-- Dr. Bill
Note: these are not English words, they are labels for sign concepts--many of which have several different meanings--depending on context and
Raise your eyebrows at the end of questions that can be answered with a
yes or no.
Lower your eyebrows at the end of questions that should be answered with
more than a yes or no.
Questions that need to be answered with more than a yes or no are
typically referred to as "WH"-questions because they usually involve
signs such as, "who, what, when, where, why," and so forth.
For example, in a sentence such as: "Do you
understand him/her? (YOU UNDERSTAND
HE/SHE, YOU?) -- the eyebrows are raised since it is a
question that can be answered with a "yes" or a "no." Think of the
second you as actually being, "(do)-YOU?"
Another "yes/no"-question example: "Do you like to meet Deaf people?"
LIKE MEET DEAF?" (Which could also be signed "YOU LIKE MEET
DEAF (do)-YOU?") The "(do)-YOU" sign is simply a combination
of eyebrows raised while pointing at the person with whom you are
Story 1 (Note: I'll be adding more
videos to this website as time goes on. --Dr. Bill Vicars. That's
me telling the story below. The stories are simply made up for
practice purposes.) I'm "Deaf/HH" not Hearing.
HI I JOHN SMITH [spell your first and last name].
I HEARING. [or whatever you are]
I STUDENT [spell the name of your school].
I LEARN LEARN SIGN. (repeating the sign learn is a way to say "learning")
TEACHER NAME [spell the name of your teacher first and last name].
HE/SHE DEAF/HH. (Use the
label that fits your local instructor:
HE/SHE TEACH GOOD.
I UNDERSTAND HE/SHE.
I LIKE HE/SHE.
Note: Students should practice the story until they can sign it from
memory in front of a class or video recorder.
Note: Story 1 is something you might sign when meeting a Deaf
person. It is typical for students to tell Deaf people where they
are learning sign, who their instructor is, and if their instructor is
deaf or hearing. In real life when you are first starting out, you
generally won't need to tell them you are hearing--because it will be
obvious from your lack of signing skills. Later though when you
become fluent at ASL you will certainly want to mention your hearing
status and your connection to the Deaf Community.
When Deaf people meet it is obvious that we are Deaf because we tell
each other what Deaf school (residential school) we attended (if we
did), and when we graduated. Plus if we went to
University (a university for the Deaf in Washington D.C.) we'll
usually mention that too.
If we meet at a party (or wherever) I'll want to know where you are
from, if you went to a Deaf school, if you went to Gallaudet, what year
you graduated, the names of any of your relatives who are Deaf, and or if
your teacher is Deaf, etc. When I know your connections and you know
mine--we can then proceed very efficiently to share information that will
be of interest to each other and have a very fascinating and engaging
conversation at a level of familiarity that rarely happens during initial
meetings between Hearing people.
Hello, I'm Bill Vicars!
Nice to meet you...
your instructor for this course. Or, if your "in-person"
instructor is using this site as a supplement to his or her class then I
reckon I'm your "lab instructor." Either way, I'm glad you are here.
happy to have this opportunity to teach you about the language I love. Let's
What is ASL?
A definition that has been
around for a long time is:
Sign Language is a visual-gestural language used by 500,000 members of the
North American Deaf community."
The primary sign language used by deaf and hearing-impaired people in
the United States and Canada, devised in part by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet
on the basis of sign language in France. Also called Ameslan.
A quick trip to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (www.m-w.com)
and we get:
Main Entry: American Sign Language
Date: 1960 : a sign language for the deaf in which meaning is conveyed by a
system of articulated hand gestures and their placement relative to the
(Hey, did you notice the date of that entry from Merriam-Webster?
1960! ASL hasn't been "recognized" as a language for very
long has it? Oh sure, the language itself has been around since the
early 1800's but it wasn't until 1960 that "experts" started
recognizing it as a full-blown autonomous language.
Now let's discuss those definitions a bit.
We should say "at least" 500,000 people use ASL. That is an
OLD statistic from the 1980's. My estimate
is more along the lines of: 2 million people are using ASL on a daily basis and
at least 500,000 of those people are using it as their primary means of communication. And
that's just in the United States.
Millions more people know "some" sign language and use it
"once in a while." For example, a grandmother of a deaf
child. She may have taken a six-week community education course and
now she knows just enough to offer her grandson candy and
is a visual gestural language." That means it is a language that
is expressed through the hands and face and is perceived through the eyes. It isn't just waving your
in the air. If you furrow your eyebrows, tilt your head, glance in a
certain direction, twist your body a certain way, puff your cheek, or any
number of other "inflections" --you are adding or changing meaning
in ASL. A "visual gestural" language carries just as much information as an oral/aural (mouth/ear) language.
limited to just the United States and Canada?
No. ASL is also used in varying degrees in
the Philippines, Ghana,
Nigeria, Chad, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Zaire, Central African Republic, Cote
d'Ivoire, Mauritania, Kenya, Madagascar, Benin, Togo, Zimbabwe, Singapore,
Hong Kong and many other places. (Source: Grimes, Barbara F. (editor), (1996). "Languages of
USA" Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 13th Edition.
Institute of Linguistics.)
Is ASL a universal
even close. Many countries have their own version of sign language. ASL is the dominant signed language in
North America, plus it is used to some extent in quite a few other
countries, but it is certainly not understood by deaf people everywhere.
A student asks: Did we get ASL from Native American Sign
Dr. Bill: Good question. No. Let's talk a bit about the
history of ASL.
In the early 1800's, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a hearing minister and a
graduate of Yale University met and became friends with a young Deaf girl
named Alice. Gallaudet took an interest in teaching the girl and succeeded
at teaching her a few words. The girl's father Dr. Mason Cogswell,
encouraged Gallaudet to become involved with the establishment of a school
for the Deaf.
So, in 1815 Gallaudet headed for Europe in search of methods for
teaching the Deaf.
He approached a number of program directors, (the Braidwood schools,
the London Asylum, etc.), but none of them were willing to share their
techniques with Gallaudet.
Fortunately while in England Gallaudet met up with the director of a
Paris school for the Deaf, a man by the name of Sicard.
Sicard was there with two of his Deaf pupils, Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc who were also teachers at the school in Paris. They were in England
giving demonstrations on how to teach the Deaf by using sign language. The
Paris school, which had been founded by the Abbe Charles Michel de L'Epee
in 1771, was using French Sign Language in combination with a set
methodically developed signs.
Gallaudet persuaded Clerc to return with him to the States and in 1817
the first American school for the Deaf was established in the city of
Over time, the signs used at that school, plus the signs that were
already being used by Deaf people in America evolved into what we now know
as American Sign Language.
It is important to note that sign language was being used here in
America before Gallaudet and Clerc set up the school. One example
(that you might want to research more) took place in Martha's
Vineyard. At one time many Deaf people lived there and all or almost
all of the townsfolk knew how to sign whether or not they were Deaf!
You will often see the term "Deaf" spelled with a
capital "D" throughout these pages. I try to capitalize the
word "Deaf" when I'm writing about people who are "culturally
Deaf." When I refer to people who are physically deaf but not
culturally Deaf I tend to
use a lowercase letter "d." While it is true that in general
"Deaf" people are physically "deaf," that is not always the case. The
case could be made that some hearing children of Deaf parents are culturally
Deaf. If it becomes important to indicate that a person is both
physically deaf and culturally Deaf I will use this label: "d/Deaf."
People who feel that being Deaf is about "language, culture,
and a visual orientation to life"
subscribe to the "cultural model" of Deafness.
In general, members of the American Deaf Community do not think of ourselves to be disabled.
We don't see or label ourselves as impaired versions of hearing
people. We see ourselves as a cultural group bonded together by a common
language. Members of our community don't want be be "h/Hearing!" If given a
choice, many of us would choose to remain deaf!
There are indeed many deaf people in the U.S.
who consider themselves to be disabled. Such individuals are generally not fluent in ASL and
consider themselves to be members of the core (culturally) Deaf Community.
So, most of the time when I use
the term "Deaf Community," I'm talking about people who are culturally Deaf.
People who feel that "deafness is problem to be solved"
subscribe to the "pathological model" or the "medical model" of deafness and
are not culturally Deaf.
It may help to realize it isn't our "deafness" that we value. Rather it is
As part of this lesson, I'd like to make sure you learn how to fingerspell
One way to do that is to check out the "fingerspelling"
Another helpful page is the "
Check with your local instructor or your syllabus regarding
the location of any graded
quizzes for this lesson.
If you are just self-studying, for a practice quiz,
(Self-Study Quiz page)
Additional Notes / Optional Reading:
Note L1.2: Left handed signing. This website is
designed from the perspective of a right-handed signer. "Lefties"
generally sign in a
mirror image of righties. For more information visit "Left-handed Signers" in the Library.