A Semi-Brief Fascinating History of American Sign Language + Resources for Learning

There is a vast misconception among hearing Americans that American Sign Language is English on the hands, but in fact, it is a full language with its own unique syntax, grammar, idioms and modes of expression. Let’s take a dive into its fascinating history, and then we’ll explore some resources available to you right now to start learning how to sign.

In the early 1800s, Alice Cogswell, a nine-year-old girl, met her neighbor, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who observed Cogswell’s high intelligence despite her being unable to speak or hear. Gallaudet decided he wanted to be able to communicate with Cogswell. He tried teaching her to read and write with some success, but Gallaudet and Cogswell’s father agreed that a formal education would yield better results. At the time, however, there were no deaf schools in the United States.

Gallaudet traveled to Europe to learn about deaf education methods, and when he came back to the U.S., he was accompanied by Laurent Clerc, a deaf educator who taught using French Sign Language (LSF). In 1817, Gallaudet and Clerc founded the American School for the Deaf.

Deaf students across America traveled to Hartford, Connecticut to attend the free public school. Up to this point, there was no standard sign language used in the country, so the students brought with them their individual home and community signs. As these signs mixed together and were influenced by Clerc’s native French Sign Language in his teaching, American Sign Language was born.

Many of the students who first attended Gallaudet and Clerc’s new school arrived from Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts island south of Cape Cod with a high hereditary deaf population. From the mid 17th century until its extinction in 1954, Martha’s Vineyard did have its own sign language, which both hearing and deaf people used with high prevalence in the 18th and 19th centuries. Per The Atlantic: according to island records, the first congenitally deaf resident of Martha’s Vineyard was Jonathan Lambert, who immigrated in 1640 from Kent, England, bringing with him his regional sign language. Jonathan Lambert’s children, born on the island, were born deaf, and with them and the island’s next several generations, Lambert’s sign language grew and evolved into Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL). As residents began moving into the mainland, in part for the new deaf school, the prevalence of MVSL began to decline. The last native signer or MVSL passed away in the 1950s, officially making it a dead language.

Today, American Sign Language (ASL)  continues to evolve.  For example, as illustrated by the New York Times article on the evolution of sign language, the sign for PHONE used to use two hands, depicting the motion of holding an old-school candlestick telephone transmitter to the mouth and receiver to the ear. Today, the common sign for PHONE is the familiar single-handed gesture of holding the hand to the ear with the thumb and pinky sticking out, or sometimes simply the hand position you use to hold a cell phone to your ear.

We also see ASL evolve with the high prevalence of small screens. When you’re signing via video call, the signs need to fit into the screen. The sign for DOG used to be a double pat on the upper thigh, whereas now it is more commonly signed with a different sign, which is tighter and directly in front of the body–an initialized version of the fingerspelling of the word in which the signer snaps twice.

And while social media has surely influenced the way regional signs spread, various dialects of ASL still exist, just as they do in spoken English. Furthermore, Black American Sign Language (BASL) developed independently from ASL due to education segregation, though not all Black Deaf signers use BASL. Oralism (an oppressive form of education in which deaf students were forced to prioritize non-signing methods of communication) was not as strongly imposed within Black Deaf schools as it was  within white Deaf schools. Because of this, BASL tends to retain more of ASL’s early signs and linguistic tendencies. According to Victoria Garcia Unzueta, “Just as Black hearing people code-switch between standard English and Black English to fit in in the classroom or among white people, BASL users frequently code-switch between BASL and ASL.”

As culture shifts, so do signed depictions. In ASL, male-gendered signs tend to be signed at the forehead, while female-gendered signs tend to be signed at the chin. In recent years, a growing number of ASL users have begun to sign PARENTS at cheek, whereas the more traditional sign for PARENTS is gendered, using MOTHER (an open hand with thumb on chin) and FATHER (an open hand with thumb on forehead) in quick succession.

Another example of a culture shif  is explained by Amanda Morris, a native signing CODA (child of Deaf adults. According to Morris, the sign for PRIVILEGE used to evoke the image of putting a dollar into a shirt pocket, whereas the newer version of the sign now evokes the image of raising one person above others. This change occurred as a result of the culture shift in which the Deaf community realized they needed a way to indicate privilege as a term related to inherent inequalities that extend beyond financial privilege.

Perhaps because the American Deaf community is much smaller than the global English-speaking community, there tends to be a lot more active discussion around new and improved ways to sign technical innovations, societal shifts and cultural concepts than we are used to seeing in regards to the English language.

Recently, Rach Kay, on Instagram as @suchalovelyred, asked her followers how they sign “gaslighting,” an English term which technically dates back to the 1930s but only came into popular usage in the past five to seven years. Gaslighting someone means to manipulate someone by making them question their own sanity, reality, or belief in their own memory. (In 2016, “gaslight” was voted by the American Dialect Society as the year’s “most useful/most likely to succeed” word.) 

Kay shared the responses she received to the question of how fellow ASL users sign “gaslighting.” Many of the signs had to do with depictions of lighting fires or igniting gas lamps, while the seemingly most favored ones seemed to have more to do with the actual meaning of the word, showing various depictions of pressure, manipulation of the mind and negative persuasion.

In a Facebook group for advanced and native signers, the responses garnered hundreds of likes, shares and comments. The Facebook group, called ASL THAT, is one designated space for these sorts of discussions. Examples of group topics, per the group’s description, include:

  1. Current trends (popular topics, words or phrases in the news),
  2. Variations of signs (national, regional, local, cultural, style, age, race, sex, international, etc.),
  3. Interpretations of English words, phrases, quotes, idioms, and
  4. New and innovative signs (both widely accepted and suggested).

The group description goes on to explain that its goal is “conceptually accurate ASL expression, free of English influence.”

By both the natural, gradual evolution of language and the active discussions among Deaf ASL users, American Sign Language continues to grow and evolve at a rapid pace. For this reason, if you want to learn ASL, it is important to learn from a qualified member of the Deaf community.

If an in-person Deaf-led ASL class is not an option, two good free online resources for learning from qualified Deaf instructors include:

American Sign Language is integrated as a cherished and core aspect of Deaf culture. Hearing individuals learning to sign should make a point to also learn about this history and culture.

If your interest in ASL is now piqued and you have a quick 30 seconds to spare, check out this video of the ASL alphabet, and try fingerspelling your name.

When you have 40 minutes to spare, check out Bill Vicars’s full “learn to fingerspell” video, and after that, move onto ASL lesson one.

If you ‘ve found this short(ish) history of ASL interesting, check out the sources used for this article below for a deeper dive into how .


HDI’s Lisa Amstutz is Second in Kentucky to Earn Special Credential for Mental Health ASL Interpreting

Lisa Amstutz earned her Qualified Mental Health Interpreter Certification earlier this month, making her the second American Sign Language interpreter in Kentucky to do so. The credential is part of a crucial effort to bridge the gap between Deaf mental health care needs and barriers to access.

The certification is typically held by experienced interpreters who have already demonstrated particularly high competence in general interpreting. A progeny of Alabama’s Mental Health Interpreting Project, the certification is earned through practicum experience focused on broadening the interpreter’s knowledge of mental health conditions and treatments so that the most effective interpretation can be made in crisis and mental health care settings.

A common misconception about American Sign Language (ASL) is that it is simply English on the hands, when in fact, ASL is a full language with its own grammar, syntax, idioms and means of expression. A question asked in English may need to be altered to make conceptual sense in ASL, and likewise, a sentiment expressed in ASL may need to be altered from a direct translation to hold true to its intended tone in English. Because of this, a qualified ASL interpreter is a non-negotiable requisite to effective mental health care for those who use ASL as their primary language.

An estimated one in five adults in the United States is living with a mental illness, and research repeatedly shows that this rate is significantly higher among Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. A statement from the National Association of the Deaf cites that “mental health disorders for deaf signers, including depression and anxiety, occur at a much higher rate, usually in the magnitude of two times higher than what is typically seen in the hearing population.”

Amstutz explains that one cause of this is related to language deprivation, which occurs when a child is not given full access to language in the first few years of life. Language deprivation has long-term effects on neurological development, affecting the child’s ability to develop language skills needed for fluent communication later in life, oft in turn leading to emotional distress and behavioral health issues.

Over 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, and the vast majority of those parents do not learn sign language. Language deprivation research indicates that assistive hearing devices such (hearing aids and cochlear implants) are “insufficient as a stand-alone approach for language acquisition in deaf children,” sign language is scarcely proposed to parents as a solution for language acquisition.

According to a Boston University article, “The developing brain responds to language no matter how it is presented, so exposure to ASL is equivalent to exposure to a spoken language.” Still, the article goes on, “Perhaps as many as 70 percent [of deaf children] are deprived of language.”

Another major factor affecting the prevalence of mental health conditions among ASL users is the barrier to accessing mental health care at all, along with fears of communication barriers leading to undesirable outcomes such as misdiagnoses or involuntary admission to psychiatric units.

This Verywell Mind article illustrates an example of how a deaf person may pound on the floor to get another person’s attention, which is an accepted action within the Deaf community but may be perceived as aggressive by a hearing person.

According to Amstutz, ASL interpreters are trained to routinely “clean up” one language to make it make sense in the other. But what if, say, the patient is experiencing psychosis, and by cleaning up the language as the interpreter typically would, the clinician in turn misses key indicators of the condition? In mental health interpreting, Amstutz explains, interpreters have a unique role in ensuring the clinician has all information needed to make a diagnosis or set a treatment plan.

“We bear a great responsibility, because we are, a lot of times, the only person in the room that knows something here is not right,” Amstutz said.

Amstutz says her new certification will be helpful in establishing herself as a core part of the ASL user’s care team in settings with other professionals “who have long viewed us as ‘helpers.’”

Amstutz has long demonstrated her passion for mental health care access, even predating her work as an interpreter. When she first began college, she intended to become a child mental health therapist. Later, she realized her best fit as a crucial advocate in mental health as an ASL interpreter.

“Working on this credential has stretched me professionally and is helping me realize a lifelong dream, “Amstutz said. “I’ve worked in mental health settings for most of my 29 years of working as an ASL interpreter, and since my first mental health interpreter training experience in 2018, I knew pursuing the [certification] was something I wanted to do.”

Amstutz is a part of the Kentucky Office of Vocational Rehabilitation ASL Interpreting Team which is employed by the UK Human Development Institute to serve its Deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers.

Please join the Human Development Institute in congratulating Amstutz on her new credential as a Qualified Mental Health Interpreter.

ASL Team standing in front of SERID Conference poster

ASL Team delivers services at Southeast Regional Institute on Deafness

This past October, the Kentucky Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreting Team, housed at the University of Kentucky Human Development Institute, traveled to Orlando, Florida to deliver services at the Southeast Regional Institute on Deafness (SERID) Conference.  SERID is an annual conference that OVR State Coordinators for the Deaf in the Southeastern United States for health professionals, employers, consumers, educators, and others who provide supports to the Deaf, hard of hearing, Deafblind and/or late Deafened individuals. 

Kentucky was well-represented by Lisa Amstutz, Tara Eversole, Sarah Grubb, Chelsea Naugle, and Christina Vice who provided communication access to conference participants and gained knowledge from colleagues in their field to enhance OVR consumer services.  

The 2023 SERID Conference will be in Charlotte, NC and will return to Kentucky in 2025.  For more information about the conference, visit