ASL has been used by Deaf people in the United States since the early 1800's. The language has evolved into a rich, complex language that uses the hands, facial expressions, head and body movements, and 3-D space. There are five parameters to all signs in ASL:
- Handshape (shape formed with placement of fingers, ie: C or 5)
- Location (where sign or hands are located in front of your body)
- Movement (path or motion of the sign, also speed)
- Palm Orientation (which way the palm is pointing)
- Non-Manual Markers (facial expressions, body posture, head tilt)
The Deaf community has a rich literary tradition in ASL with stories and poems passed down from generation to generation. These stories and poems in ASL may follow a strict set of rules for use of handshape, movement, rhythm, rhyme, role-shifting and other literary elements. To view an example of an ASL poem by one of the best known Deaf ASL poets and linguists, Clayton Valli, go to YouTube. For the English text translation of this poem, as well as an in-depth view on the history and development of ASL poetry, The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox DVD may be ordered from National Technical Institute of the Deaf (NTID) - click here.
If you are interested in learning ASL, it is best to head to your nearest college or local organization offering classes. ASL is a highly visual, interactive language with complex grammar that is best learned in person, rather than from a book or internet course. However, if taking an actual class is not an option right now, the following websites and books can give you a start on ASL vocabulary. These sites and books will not give you a solid understanding of the grammatical rules of ASL.
- The Gallaudet Dictionary of American Sign Language - by Clayton Valli, Peggy S. Lott, Daniel Renner, Robert W. Hills
- American Sign Language Dictionary, Third Edition - by Martin Sternberg
Last but not least, while learning ASL, you should make an effort to go to a Deaf community event and meet some Deaf people. Deaf culture is rich with literary traditions in ASL, identity and pride, group dynamics, and rules for social interactions. Once you find an ally in the Deaf community to guide you on your journey of learning ASL, you will be forever rewarded!