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North American Deaf Language (NADL):  Reimagining Bilingualism in the Deaf Community:


By William G. Vicars, EdD
October 25, 2023

The Deaf community in North America, with its unique linguistic landscape, has long been the focal point of sociolinguistic studies. Commonly, the language proficiencies of Deaf signing adults are dichotomized into two distinct categories: American Sign Language (ASL) for signed communication and English for written modes. This leads to a straightforward classification of this group as bilingual. However, such a bifurcated view may not capture the true essence of the linguistic experience of the Deaf community. Instead, a holistic perspective, encapsulated in the concept of the North American Deaf Language (NADL), presents a more nuanced and integrated understanding of this linguistic landscape.


The Limitations of Bilingualism as a Framework

Classifying Deaf signing adults as bilingual compartmentalizes our linguistic capabilities. It implies that there are two separate linguistic systems at play, each with its own distinct rules, norms, and domains of use. While this may hold true for many bilingual communities globally, the North American Deaf community's experience transcends this.


ASL and written English for the Deaf do not function merely as two parallel, independent languages. Instead, they often intersect, intertwine, and merge in various contexts. This integration is driven by the unique communication needs and challenges that Deaf individuals face daily. The fluidity with which Deaf individuals navigate between ASL and English, adapting to diverse situations, reflects a more integrated linguistic system than the term 'bilingualism' captures.


Advocating for NADL: An Integrated Language System

The proposition of NADL as a comprehensive language system acknowledges several key facets of the Deaf linguistic experience:


1.  Fluidity and Adaptability: Many Deaf individuals exhibit a remarkable ability to fluidly switch between ASL and English based on context. This isn't mere code-switching, typical of bilingual speakers; it's a seamless integration where both modes can be utilized simultaneously or interchangeably, reflecting a singular integrated language system.


2.  Shared Cultural Context: Both ASL and written English, as used by the North American Deaf community, are steeped in numerous partially overlapping cultural and experiential contexts. This shared backdrop means that while the modes of expression might differ, many of the underlying cultural nuances, idioms, and shared experiences remain consistent.


3.  Societal Navigation: Given the auditory-centric nature of broader society, Deaf individuals often find ourselves adapting and integrating both ASL and English to communicate effectively. Whether it's interpreting written information through an ASL lens or expressing ASL concepts in written English, the intertwining of the two is evident.


4.  Technological Convergence: With the advent of digital technology, platforms now exist where ASL and written English converge. Video transcriptions, closed captions, and video relay services blend the boundaries between ASL and English, underscoring their integrated function.


Implications and Further Considerations


Recognizing NADL as a legitimate linguistic concept shifts the paradigm from seeing Deaf individuals as merely bilingual to appreciating our unique linguistic landscape. This perspective can play a role in steering Deaf education curricula towards an integrated approach, aiming for more comprehensive linguistic development.


Moreover, acknowledging NADL can pave the way for further academic exploration. Linguists can delve deeper into understanding the intricacies of this integrated language system, exploring its grammar, syntax, and semantics from a unified perspective.


While bilingualism as a framework has its merits, it may not do justice to the rich and interconnected linguistic tapestry of the Deaf community in North America. The concept of North American Deaf Language, or NADL, offers a more encompassing and accurate representation, one that recognizes the fluid, adaptable, and integrated nature of the Deaf linguistic experience. Embracing this perspective not only validates the lived experiences of Deaf individuals but also enriches our understanding of the vast and varied world of human communication.


Cite this article:


APA 7th edition:
Vicars, W. G. (2023). North American Deaf Language (NADL): Reimagining bilingualism in the Deaf community. ASL University.


MLA 8th edition:

Vicars, William G. "North American Deaf Language (NADL): Reimagining Bilingualism in the Deaf Community." ASL University, Lifeprint Library, 25 Oct. 2023,

Chicago 17th edition:

Vicars, William G. 2023. "North American Deaf Language (NADL): Reimagining Bilingualism in the Deaf Community." ASL University.






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