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American Sign Language: ASL History

(1) Also see: History 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8


William G. Vicars, Ed.D.
Jan 1, 2001

ASL History:
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 Hartford, Connecticut.

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!


Review questions:

1.  "Who was the hearing minister who went to Europe in 1815 to search for methods of educating the Deaf?

2.  Who was the Deaf person who traveled to America in 1817 to help set up a school for the Deaf?


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