American Sign Language: An Essential Communication Technique

When people think of the most popular languages used in the world today, they are likely not considering American Sign Language (ASL) as one of them. However, ASL is one of the most popular languages used in the United States, and it is expanding to other countries.

The wide use of ASL has led interpreters of the language to assume an essential role in ensuring that people with auditory disabilities can communicate with each other. Whether ASL interpretation is needed for one-on-one communication or for a large group conference, the service is rapidly becoming a critical communication tool for businesses, judicial systems, government agencies, training environments, and the entertainment industry.

Read on to learn more about how ASL fosters communication for people and the vital role that interpreters play in the language’s use.

The History of ASL

ASL’s origins can be traced back to Old French Sign Language (OFSL), which was developed in the mid-18th century. Abbé de l’Épée, a cleric from Paris, saw two young girls communicating with each other by signing. This encounter made him realize that signing could be used to educate children with hearing disabilities. As such, in 1771, he established the first free educational institution for the deaf in France. During this time, de l’Épée further developed OFSL so that it wouldcommm promote clearer communication.

Years later, in the United States, a minister from Hartford, Connecticut, followed de l’Épée’s lead. That minister, was Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who was neighbors with a girl with hearing disabilities named Alice Cogswell. Gallaudet decided to teach Alice how to communicate, but soon discovered that he was not able to instruct her on how to spell and write.

To expand his skills for educating children with auditory disabilities, Gallaudet decided to travel to France and visit de l’Épée’s schools for the deaf. While he was there, Gallaudet met Laurent Clerc, a graduate with hearing disability, who taught him sign language. When Gallaudet returned home to the United States, Clerc decided to join him.

In 1817, Gallaudet and Clerc launched the American School for the Deaf in Connecticut; it became the first public free school for the deaf in the United States. The school attracted students from across the country, bringing with them the signs they had been using at home.

About 13 years later, Gallaudet retired, and Clerc continued teaching at the school until the 1850s. By 1863, 22 schools for students with hearing disabilities had been established throughout the United States; most of these facilities were developed by Clerc’s students. In all these schools, Clerc’s education techniques were consistently used.

As a result of these efforts, American Sign Language was born.

Interesting Aspects of ASL

ASL is one of the most unique languages across the globe. Here are some interesting facts about the language:

  • People might assume that American Sign Language is a gesture-based representation of spoken English; however, that is incorrect. In fact, ASL is a complete language and has all the properties of spoken languages.
  • With its grammar, vocabulary, style, and word order, ASL does not necessarily reflect English words.
  • The American Sign Language alphabet consists of 26 manual letters that correspond to the English alphabet.
  • ASL is considered a foreign language; some schools award foreign language credits for students who study ASL.
  • There is not one universal sign language; even ASL and British Sign Language are different from each other. Across the globe, there are about 300 distinctive sign languages being used.
  • Since ASL users cannot use voice inflection and tone for emphasis, they instead use body language and facial expressions as part of ASL.
  • In the 1920s, the football team at Gallaudet University began the concept of the huddle to plan their next play.They did this so that he opposing team could not see their signed communications. Football teams universally use this practice of huddling today.
  • Babies learn sign language in a manner that is comparable to how they learn spoken languages. In fact, infants who grow up with signing parents will develop the skills through the natural interaction they have with their family.

Types of Sign Language Interpretation 

There are various types of sign language interpretation available to clients, depending on their needs. The two primary types are:

  • Simultaneous interpretation,in which the interpreter listens to the speaker, while simultaneously signing for the deaf or hard-of-hearing audience. Additionally, the interpreter might pay attention to the sign language user and verbally relay their message to the other participants.
  • Consecutive interpretation, in which the interpreter listens to a speaker or observes their signing of several sentences, then relays the information in the target language. In this type of interpretation, the interpreter might take notes to make sure they are interpreting the message more precisely.

In some situations, the interpreter has to conduct the work through video conferencing. Because the need for sign language interpreters has increased, this option is becoming more popular with clients.

Additionally, there are numerous modes of sign language interpretation services. Here are the most common ones:

  • ASL interpretation. In the United States, this is the preferred type of sign language interpretation, and it is the one that is most used. This mode includes both ASL and English, and the interpreter needs to be fluent in both languages.
  • During this method, the interpreter transliterates spoken English into a sign version of English. This service might include aspects of ASL interpretation, and it follows the word order of English.
  • Oral transliteration.This method is less commonly used. During the process, the interpreter silently repeats spoken English words, while pointing, using gestures, and implementing other techniques to complement the mouthing of the words and to convey the message.
  • Cued speech transliteration. Throughout this approach, the interpreter uses handshapes that are placed in specific areas around the mouth to depict English phonetic markers.
  • Tactile interpretation.This style is used to foster communication for people who are both deaf and blind. To accomplish this method, the interpreter creates signs in the individual’s hand, while using other tangible cues to relay the message.

Critical Uses for ASL Interpretations

ASL interpretation has several significant applications, such as:

  • One of the most critical uses of ASL interpretation is for medical purposes. As with all types of medical interpretation, even a single error can have dire consequences. Hospitals and other medical care facilities rely on ASL interpreters who are experts in the field to accurately relay information between doctors and patients. Ultimately, ASL interpreters are essential in giving people with hearing disabilities equal access to healthcare, while making certain that healthcare professionals give them the correct medical treatments necessary for their conditions.
  • Emergency assistance. When emergencies happen, ASL interpreters are crucial in ensuring that people with auditory disabilities can properly and effectively communicate with others. An interpreter should be immediately available in an emergency, so that the individual in need can get fast and reliable assistance. Without clear communication, the person in distress could face tragic results.
  • Legal services. Managing challenging legal situations is even more stressful when there are language barriers in the way. Legal ASL interpreters make sure that people who have hearing disabilities can fully understand their legal rights and options. From assisting with contracts to representing someone in court, legal interpreters will ensure that every detail is addressed in legal proceedings.
  • Business field. Business services that ASL interpreters provide vary greatly and can include helping to negotiate employment or providing assistance during on-the-job training. These interpreters can help individuals with auditory disabilities navigate through a variety of complex situations in business settings.
  • Hospitality industry. Employees in the hospitality industry have to be ready to assist people from diverse backgrounds and cultures on a daily basis. As such, it is imperative that they can effectively communicate with their customers and provide help when it is needed. ASL interpreters should be available to facilitate communication between the employees and clients.
  • Retail services. Like the hospitality industry, employees in retail services are expected to be able to assist customers at all times, and communication barriers should not stand in the way of good customer service. ASL interpreters can ensure that communication in retail settings is not hindered between the employee and the customer.
  • Finance industry. Another field that requires precision is the finance industry, especially in the areas of banking and investments. If someone is making decisions about their money, they need to have all the pertinent information clearly shared with them.
  • Education Many schools accommodate for students who are hard of hearing, due to which they often provide some ASL training for teachers. If that training is not available, they would need to contract with an ASL interpretation services agency to ensure they have someone at the school to help hearing-impaired students.

Skills Required by ASL Interpreters

Ultimately, ASL interpretation requires more skills than simply replacing a spoken word in English with a visual representation. Proficiency in ASL interpretation requires a high level of linguistic, technical, and cognitive skills, such as:

  • Cultural sensitivity. The interpreter will be working with people of various cultural backgrounds, so cultural sensitivity is a critical trait.
  • ASL interpreters have to be able to make coordinated finger, hand, and arm movements rapidly and accurately.
  • Strong interpersonal skills. Since ASL interpreters have to attract and retain clients, they need to have outstanding interpersonal communication skills.
  • Excellent concentration. This is particularly important since the interpreter will typically be working in busy and hectic environments where other people are talking. Since interpreters are doing more than one task at the same time, they need to deeply concentrate on their work, regardless of any distractions.
  • Technical skills. With many industries adding remote services to their products, ASL interpreters have to be skilled in working through various issues that can arise with technology and web-based communications.

The Role of American Sign Language in Globalization

As more companies expand to foreign markets, the need for ASL interpreters will continue to grow. Many businesses require interpretation services to facilitate communication between ASL users and foreign speakers. Although ASL interpreters are typically trained to relay messages between English and ASL, there is an increasing need for interpreters who are also multilingual.

In addition, American Sign Language has already expanded to other regions as a first language for people with auditory disabilities. These include Canada, West Africa, and Southeast Asia.

For American Sign Language communication to be effective, it has to be precise. To find the best interpreter for your company, partner with an interpretation agency that specializes in ASL, as well as houses experts in the required industry.


As one of the most unique languages used today, American Sign Language (ASL) has a rich history. Interpretation services for this language is especially critical for facilitating communication between people with and without hearing disabilities. Take a look at this guide to ASL and the ways that interpreters are helping individuals with hearing impairments.

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