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History of American Sign Language

  • 17 August 2016

Although the first record of a signed language was in the early 17th century, signed languages probably existed as long as there were civilizations. Sign languages had existed whenever there were deaf people.

Even though American Sign Language (ASL) has strong roots in French Sign Language, it is deeply influenced by many events preceding the more formalized sign languages that flourished since the 1700’s. The most prominent event was the publication of Sign Language Structure in 1965 by William Stokoe, a linguist, showing that ASL was a bona-fide language.

The first known book on sign language was published in 1620 by Juan Pablo de Bonet. While a treaty for teaching “mute people to speak,” Bonet’s book also published a manual alphabet to improve communication with deaf students.

In 1755, Abbe Charles-Michel de l’Epee of Paris founded the first public (free) school in Paris for deaf students. Many of l’Epee’s disciples founded schools for deaf students in their respective countries throughout Europe using the Langue des Signes Francaise (LSF).

In 1815, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet travelled to Europe to study methods for teaching Deaf students. At a public demonstration in England, Gallaudet met Abbe Roch-Ambroise Sicard and Jean Massieu who then invited him to visit their school in Paris.

While in Paris learning the teaching methods using LSF, Gallaudet asked Laurent Clerc – a deaf teacher who was also a graduate of the school -- to come to America and help him set up a school for deaf students. Laurent Clerc accepted Gallaudet’s invitation to travel to America. During the 60 days of sailing to America, Gallaudet taught Clerc English while Clerc taught Gallaudet LSF. (Laurent Clerc, A Profile)

In 1817, Gallaudet and Clerc opened the first of their schools in Connecticut. It was called the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons (now called the American School for the Deaf) in Hartford. By the end of the first year, there were 31 students from various New England cities which included students from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts and Henniker, New Hampshire.

Martha’s Vineyard and Henniker were two full-fledged communities where deaf and hearing residents of the island were communicating in a form of signed language. “Among the possible sources of the present American Sign Language would be Clerc’s LSF, the homesigns students brought from home and from some small scattered Deaf communities, pantomime, and new signs generated in the setting of the school.” (Journey to the Deaf World).

Today’s ASL was thus strongly influenced by the American School for the Deaf (ASD). Deaf students who graduated from ASD would go to different states to set up new schools for deaf students and would thus pass down to the next generation of deaf students the “contact language” that has become today’s ASL.

By 1900s, the nationwide network of residential state schools was completed. Deaf people were now given the opportunity to be with other Deaf children and Deaf adults. They could share their sign language and cultural experiences without any communication barriers.  The relationships they would form in these residential schools would last a lifetime.

First ten state-supported residential schools in America
Name of School Location Date Founded
The American School for the Deaf Hartford, Conn 1817
New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb New York City 1818
Pennsylvania Institution of the Deaf and Dumb Philadelphia 1820
Kentucky School for the Deaf Danville 1822
Ohio Institution for the Deaf Columbus 1827
Virginia Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb Staunton 1839
State of Indiana Institution for the Education of the Deaf Indianapolis 1844
The Tennessee Deaf and Dumb School Knoxville 1844
North Carolina Institution for the Deaf and the Blind Raleigh 1845
Georgia School for the Deaf Cave Springs 1846


By the time of Clerc’s death in 1869, over 1500 students had graduated from the Hartford school, and there were 30 state-supported residential schools. In 1864, Gallaudet University -- the first college for the Deaf in the world – was founded. The establishment of residential schools and the college ensured that ASL flourished.

Deaf adults were first hired as teachers as well as sign language models for Deaf children at school.  This was changed later, in the early 20th century, when the oralist movement had taken hold in the educational system. Alexander Graham Bell led the movement in opposing the use of sign language in the education of deaf children.  As a result, many Deaf adults were forced out of the teaching profession or demoted to being teachers of vocational classes.

Today, the trend toward dedicated, residential education for deaf children has been replaced by a trend to integrate deaf children into local public schools. This movement became predominant after the passage of the All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (today called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act [IDEA]).

Even though the long tradition of residential schools as the main centers of cultural transmission has been altered, ASL has still boomed.

As a result of Stokoe’s 1965 linguistic study of ASL, within a short time, the perception of ASL changed from that of a broken or simplified version of English to that of a complex and thriving natural language as functional and powerful as any found in the oral languages of the world. The instruction of ASL as a “foreign language” became popular and ASL’s appeal has only grown. Currently, students can take ASL to meet their high school or college requirement of two years of foreign language study.

The ASL in use today is a result of 195 years of deaf families and students passing down from one generation to next the language that has become one of the most used languages in the United States of America.