Is American Sign Language Universal?

Printed in the Fairview Town Crier August, 2022

Note: My use of “d”, deaf, denotes the audiological loss of hearing. This encompasses all those with hearing loss, whatever level, which are limited in their communication within the speaking, hearing world without assistance. My use of “D”, Deaf, refers to the world’s population who use sign language as their chosen mode of communication or would if given the opportunity to be exposed to it.

Is American Sign Language Universal? This is a question we are asked repeatedly in The Signs for Hope Marketplace. American Sign Language is NOT a universal sign language.

Humans are all born with an innate desire to communicate with one another through language. Language acquisition actually begins in utero. The research that surrounds this discovery is fascinating. In fact, Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts college for the Deaf in the world, located in Washington, DC, offers a course online entitled “Learning Language by Eye or by Ear” created by Dr. Deborah Chen-Pichler. What ears do for learning language in utero, the eyes and vibrations do for learning sign language following birth.

Sign languages can and do emerge naturally among multiple deaf children if they are granted time enough together for it to do so. The most notable occurrence of this took place in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s in Managua, Nicaragua. Hundreds of deaf children were placed in two “special needs” vocational schools with very limited resources. The plan was to teach the deaf students written Spanish and lipreading to communicate with their hearing families. Historically and unfortunately this is the hearing world’s most common thinking and their best solution for a child’s deafness. Instead, the students themselves began creating their own language with their hands and bodies to communicate with each other and Nicaraguan Sign Language was birthed.  (

Today, around the world, sign systems, not sign languages, are most often taught by well-meaning hearing people to deaf people, young and old, usually in a classroom-like setting. These sign systems are created to represent the native spoken/written/read language of the majority hearing culture around them. When sign systems are taught in place of a true sign language, the visual, gestural qualities of a true sign language are jeopardized, thus limiting the majority of a learner’s full comprehension of what is being communicated, especially when daily interactions with Deaf folks outside of the classroom are minimal to non-existent. Natural emerging sign languages incorporate the visual representations of things occurring in the environment, often replicating what something looks like and/or how it functions.

The above is one reason why The Signs for Hope Marketplace resources for sale for learning ASL are so limited. Trying to learn sign language from a book is like trying to smell a rose through the Internet. Language learning must involve people and preferably, people in the flesh. Keep in mind when searching for ways to learn ASL, the language learned from another will match the level of that person’s language.

When a person, child or adult, is not allowed intentionally or unintentionally to be exposed to a full language, that is called language deprivation. The impact of language deprivation encompasses the whole person, especially the emotional and social aspects, as you might imagine. The research and study surrounding language deprivation and its impact are still in the early stages. The tools and strategies for possibly reversing the life-long implications of language deprivation have yet to emerge. I know of none, outside of Signs for Hope, (, even in process.

American Sign Language (ASL) has evolved from a rich and diverse history over the past 200 years. Most would assume since this country was colonized by the British in the 1600’s, our sign language would have been directly influenced by British Sign Language (BSL). ASL however has its roots coming from French Sign Language instead, beginning in the early 1800’s. Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was responsible for ,bringing an official sign language to America when he convinced a highly skilled Laurent Clerc, a Deaf professor teaching Deaf students in France, to accompany him back to America to establish the first school for the Deaf here. The American School for the Deaf, the first public free school in America for the Deaf, was established in 1817 in Hartford, Connecticut. It continues educating Deaf students, today.

Other influences on the developing of ASL include the home signs deaf children brought with them to school, Native American signs and Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL). MVSL was created between the 18th century and 1950, when an entire village, Chilmark, devised their own sign language to communicate with one another since their Deaf population was so high. In one area, Squibnocket, 25% of the population was Deaf (

In the 1960’s research conducted by William Stokoe, a professor at Gallaudet University, accredited American Sign Language as satisfying all the necessary requirements by linguists for being a complete language in and of itself, separate from English, with its own grammatical structure, morphology and syntax. This has established ASL as being on the same level of all spoken languages around the world (

There is a Universal Sign Language (USL) more recently created mostly for international conferences of the Deaf, but very few Deaf folks in their native countries learn USL for their everyday life communicating. The actual fact remains that there are more Deaf folks around the globe who have never been exposed to sign language than those who have. To help think about this realistically it might be similar to thinking about the number of hearing folks around the globe who still cannot read or write their spoken language even semi-fluently.

95+% of deaf children are born into hearing families, globally. This is true of the US, as well. It is also sad, but true, that less than 10% of immediate hearing family members learn sign language to communicate with their Deaf family member. This statistic comes from our Deaf schools where hearing families have accepted their Deaf child will grow up using a different language and ascribe to a different culture than theirs. I am a part of that above statistic. I had nine Deaf family members spread across three generations beginning with my maternal grandparent’s generation. I did not learn to communicate in sign with them as a child or even young adult. When God called me back to school in 2000, I did learn ASL in the classroom, as well as in the Deaf world, and have thankfully had wonderful, effortless, conversations in sign with my Deaf family members who are still alive.

To date, according to the World Federation of the Deaf, only 71 countries across the globe have officially recognized the right of their Deaf populations to learn and be granted access to their hearing world through their indigenous sign language ( Interesting to note, the United States is NOT one of those 71. While that number does represent progress, the sad truth remains that the resources for actually providing sign language exposure in an immersion-like setting, replicating the natural environment where hearing children learn spoken language, remains non-existent for deaf children and their hearing families, today.

Signs for Hope maintains hope, thus the name, and envisions that changing. We are committed to creating an immersion-type setting for families with Deaf children, whether birthed or adopted, granting them the opportunity to learn ASL together in an actual home environment. We are continually keeping our eyes and hearts open to whomever might help us find and secure an available home ready to transform into this vision or property on which to build anew with everything structured to meet the needs of these families. The ASL Home we have designed incorporates universal Design and DeafSpace friendly features, granting full access and equity by all. This ASL Home is in addition to those resources I have shared with you here in the Fairview Town Crier in previous articles we already share with the families we serve, Trust-based Relational Intervention® and Executive Function Skills training. Helping to minimize and reverse the effects of early childhood developmental trauma which encompasses language deprivation, as soon as possible.


Signs for Hope is involved in the creation of resources for the above, along with our partner organizations, the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development (Texas Christian University) and Gallaudet University. This is pioneer work at its finest and we are humbled and honored to be a part of it. Won’t you join us?