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American sign language

When you run a business, making sure your products and services are available to everyone is of vital importance. And that includes using American sign language to increase your accessibility with the deaf and hard of hearing population of the USA. The thing is, unlike English as a language, American sign language doesn’t quite have the same amount of awareness as other spoken languages. Plus unless you have direct contact with ASL speakers, many people are unfamiliar with how it works. So, this week we’re going to be taking a look at the world of American sign language and the job of an ASL interpreter.


What is American sign language

American sign language (aka ASL) is the main language used by the deaf community in the United States and English-speaking Canada. There’s not really any reliable data on how many people actually use ASL, but the current estimate ranges from 250,000 to 500,000. Plus, a rising number of people are choosing to learn ASL as a second language.

American sign language is a language in its own right and is closely related to a number of different ASL dialects used across Africa, and LSF (French sign language).


The history of American sign language

Depending on who you ask, there are a couple of different accounts as to where American sign language first originated. Some people think it came directly from mixing local sign languages with French sign language, yet others suggest that its roots lie in19th century Connecticut at the American School for the Deaf. 

No matter where the language originated from, one thing we know for sure is that it has drastically evolved over the years, molding into a rich, complex, and mature language in its own right.


The linguistics

American sign language is a gestural language and signs have a number of phonemic components, which include face and body movements. ASL isn’t a form of mime, however, a number of English loan words are fingerspelled. Linguistically, ASL is classed as a subject-verb-object language and has its own verbal agreements.

How different are BSL, ASL, and other world sign languages?

While we Americans may have a few issues with strong English or Scottish accents, for example, our written languages don’t vary all that much. There may be the odd word and spelling that’s different – but it doesn’t really impact our ability to understand each other. With sign language, however, it’s a completely different kettle of fish. American sign language and British sign language and different languages, and users may not be able to understand each other. Plus, you’ve also got regional differences to contend with!

Signers from the South tend to sign a lot more freely, whereas signers from New York are known to sign a lot quicker. Californians are also a lot faster than other regions, which has been linked to the fact that signers living in cities have to sign a lot faster than those living in more relaxed locations.

You can also see differences in signers based on their age and where they’re from – just like you see in spoken English. ASL has slang too, and if someone’s native language isn’t American sign language, sometimes their native language may creep into their ASL. And most surprisingly, there are noted differences between white and black sign language users, with Black American Sign Language sometimes being referred to as its own language!

How does ASL and spoken English compare?

As we’ve already noted, American sign language is classed as a completely separate language to English. It has its own rules for pronunciation, word order, and formation. Instead of using tone of voice to ask a question, ASL users will ask a question by raising their eyebrows, opening their eyes more, and leaning their body forward.

The role of an American sign language interpreter

As an American sign language interpreter, you have to be comfortable working in a wide range of environments, including medical, legal, educational, and much more. It’s a very complex job as the interpreter has to listen to what’s being said, do a mental translation and then relay the message in American sign language. Plus, a number of English phrases have no direct translations in ASL, so the interpreter has to work to portray what’s being said as accurately as possible (One example of this is the phrase sexually active. In English you can talk about being sexually active without mentioning a partner, however, in ASL, it’s very difficult to discuss sexual activity without mentioning a partner, which is where medical situations may get tricky.). Plus, connotations are very difficult to portray in ASL. Using medicine as an example once again, if there’s nothing more a doctor can do for someone, in English, they can say that instead of bluntly saying that they’re going to die. The problem with ASL is that an equivalent doesn’t exist, so it’s often left to the interpreter to break the news to their client without being able to be as sensitive. In cases like this, it’s down to the American sign language interpreter to explain the difficulty of the situation with the doctor and ask them if they’d perhaps like to adjust the way they convey what’s going on. So, the interpreter really does have a tough job on their hands as they’ve got to predict the situation before it happens.

Challenges of being an ASL interpreter

While being an American sign language interpreter has got a lot easier in recent years with better education, support, and work experience opportunities, it still has its challenges. There’s a great deal of pressure on interpreters, especially as they’re often needed to interpret during traumatizing experiences. Plus interpreters face health issues like carpal tunnel syndrome which sometimes means they have to take time off work. Plus, there are not enough American sign language interpreters to meet current demand, which is why many interpreters are overworked. This is why when you’re ordering ASL interpretation, it’s important to keep in mind that most ASL interpreters will only agree to working alone for 45 minutes or less, meaning you may end up needing an interpretation team.

Final thoughts

As you can see, dealing with American sign language interpretation is a lot more complex than you probably first thought. Not only due to the nature of the work but also due to the lack of qualified resources, working with a professional provider really is going to be your best bet to guarantee your ASL needs are met as professionally as possible. Here at USTC, we have a great team of ASL interpreters who are here to help your company, no matter what you’re looking for.

So, if you’d like to find out more about American sign language or get a quote for one of our amazing American sign language interpreters, get in touch – we’re here to help every step of the way.

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