Millions of people use American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary means of communication today. These include individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing, those unable to use speech, and their loved ones seeking to communicate with them. But how did such a large group of people learn this language? Where did it come from? How did it spread?
To help you understand the answers to these questions, we've pulled together a brief timeline of ASL, discussing its history and modern development. (If you're more interested in actually learning the language, then you may want to check out our guide to the best ASL online courses instead.)
Like any other subject in the world, the history of ASL is quite nuanced. It’s colored by many perspectives from different advocates who influenced the creation and spread of sign language from centuries ago till today. As such, you may come across historical timelines that differ to the one we've painted below.
We also can’t possibly cover everything that happened in the past three centuries, so here we offer you a brief overview of some of the most popular historical accounts and theories proposed by users and advocates of ASL over the years.
The first records of ASL
The earliest records of teaching, learning, and using ASL come from the 1700s when Martha’s Vineyard had a growing population of deaf people who created Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language to facilitate communication.
There’s a strong chance that some form of sign language existed before this time, but no official records proving the existence of a particular sign language before this period have been found yet.
Focusing on the spread of sign language in Western regions, records show sign language became more prominent across the United States when Laurent Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet established the first American school for the Deaf in the 1800s.
Based in Hartford, Connecticut, it was then named "Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons." In line with changes in culture, and in how we use (and avoid using) certain terms, the school is now called "American School for the Deaf."
But the mere existence of such a school did not automatically create a sign language like ASL. In fact, there was no "official" sign language taught yet. Instead, a mix of local sign languages (including the French Sign Language and the aforementioned Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language) was used. Soon the word spread across the neighboring regions and students started gathering here to learn what came to be called the "Old American Sign Language."
As its popularity grew over the next 50-75 years, several dozen such schools were established across the country, reigning in a new era of using sign language to communicate. However, this journey wasn’t always smooth. People in the US (back then) didn’t automatically accept sign language for widespread use. Countless debates and discussions took place to determine what would be the best way for the deaf to communicate. Surprisingly, sometimes these discussions didn’t include deaf communities at all.
How is this possible? Here’s one incident to explain how the deaf community was pushed out of making decisions about the use of sign language.
The Bell influence on ASL
Alexander Graham Bell, best known for his work on telephones, had a major influence on the way deaf children were taught in the US. He supported "oralism," a school of thought which believes deaf people should be taught speech and learn to lip-read rather than communicate with signs.
The results of this were seen at the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf (Milan) in 1880 where the Congress adopted a position favoring oralism and banning the use of sign language in schools. Reports say the decision may have been unfair as those defending oralism had almost three days to present but those in support of sign language had only three hours.
Due to the skills needed to instruct speech and lip-reading, deaf people were largely excluded from being teachers as the focus now shifted toward oral methods. Earlier reports say such exclusion increased to a point where committees making decisions about the use of sign language did not include a single person from the deaf community.
This went on until the 1960s, after which things began shifting again.
The resurgence of ASL
Despite its ongoing dominance, the oralism approach had not produced the kind of results people expected. Deaf students continued to have low literacy rates, with the average reading level of an adult in the 1960s being around third or fourth grade.
Additionally, at that time, Gallaudet professor William Stokoe published his paper on Sign Language Structure. This helped establish ASL as a fully developed language that must be respected just like any other spoken language.
Eventually, in 1980, exactly a hundred years after the Milan conference that banned sign languages, Congress declared "all deaf children have the right to flexible communication in the mode or combination of modes which best meets their individual needs."
This shifted the focus from oralism to sign language again. Consequently, in the next few years, ASL gained wider acceptance. In fact, some reports suggest it was recently declared as one of the third-most studied languages, beating traditionally popular student-learning languages like German and Japanese.
ASL has come a long way since the 1700s when it wasn’t even fully developed. From using a combination of self-made sign languages in the past to learning the official American Sign Language today, individuals who have trouble speaking and hearing have changed the way they communicate.
Today, through the spread of ASL, deaf students and adult learners have more access to content: be it popular media like music and movies, or educational content like live seminars and online lectures. A lot of the best online learning platforms offer some form of ASL content.
Interestingly, ASL has now become an everyday part of the "Millennial and Gen-Z" culture. A New York Times feature published earlier this year highlights how teenagers and young adults are creating and consuming ASL content on social media. From rapping popular songs in ASL to creating ASL-based art, the younger generation is integrating sign language into everyday culture.