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Breaking the sound barrier

A sociolinguistic analysis of American Sign Language


Breaking the sound barrier

A sociolinguistic analysis of American Sign Language

One palm brushes over the other, parallel to the ground. The bottom hand falls away. Two fingers on the top hand form a “peace sign” with the palm facing the signer. The middle finger touches the cheek before the hand moves forward. An index finger points directly at the observer’s chest.

Nice to see you.”

Though its exact origin remains a topic of debate, American Sign Language is thought to borrow aspects from French Sign Language, brought over to the United States by French teacher Laurent Clerc in 1817, and America’s more localized colloquial sign of the time.

Now, to say that the language is “spoken” would be to misrepresent it. ASL is not spoken but shown. Someone communicating in ASL is not translating English words but conveying universal ideas and individual thoughts.

Beyond that, these thoughts have to be presented without a tone of voice or a change of volume. A completely physical language, it is the intensity of one’s movements and facial expressions that show emotions, thoughts and even grammar.

ASU American Sign Language lecturer and former program director Paul Quinn explained that people who sign communicate in vastly different ways than those who speak.

Quinn said for the most part, signing people are much more forward in their communication. They cut straight through all of the polite tiptoeing that speaking people are accustomed to.

Quinn said one shining example of this discrepancy was an interaction he had at the library with a man who was deaf. The two greeted each other in ASL and had an extremely personal conversation.

“He proceeds to tell me why he moved to Arizona, how his father was supposed to move here with him but his father decided to stay in Oregon,” he said. 

The man went on to tell Quinn about why he was at the library and how he tries to talk to his father often. “And I just met this person,” he said.

Quinn said there are likely a number of reasons for this pattern of personal conversation between those who use ASL.

The first is the historical lack of long-distance communication between people who are deaf. Up until the popularization of texting and cellphones, snail mail and phone calls were the only mediums of long-distance communication. With the latter being inaccessible to people who are deaf or have partial hearing loss, only letters, which would often arrive weeks after their writing, and face-to-face communication were possible.

Thus, in-person communication between people who are deaf became much more efficient and unequivocal.

Quinn said he believes that the tight-knit nature of the signing community makes for a quicker connection and a degree of immediate trust. When a signing person meets another signing person, the two instantly have a unique cultural bond.

“If you have an interest, say, in computers and then you suddenly meet someone and you kind of get that they do, too … you immediately can start talking for quite a bit about computers,” Quinn said. 

He said that speaking people bond over shared interests while people who sign already have a bond through their shared language.

Quinn sees the discrepancies between signed and spoken language; the former is the way Juan Beltran speaks his mind.

Now a sophomore studying physical education, he was born hearing, but became deaf by the time he was 2 months old. Beltran said he learned to speak English with a cochlear implant as a child, but his first language was ASL. He stopped speaking English when he was a teenager.

Beltran’s interview with State Press Magazine was conducted through writing in a notebook due to a language barrier. 

“English and ASL are different languages,” Beltran said. “English is common to speak. It has clear grammar. ASL is unique to the deaf community and other people who need it. Sign language uses hands, facial expressions and is quicker.”

Despite its variance from English, Beltran said there are a lot of times when he sees people signing in his mind while he reads English words — even if that person doesn’t know a lick of ASL. Other times, however, words aren’t easy to translate from English to ASL.

Although this is often seen in the deaf community, it is not limited to it.

In his 27 years of studying and making ASL a part of his life, Quinn said he’s become less aware of sound and even finds himself thinking in ASL from time to time.

He recently had to have his roof repaired and when the repairman came down to tell Quinn where and what the problem was, he understood it in ASL.

“In my head, I'm seeing signing and visualizing the entire thing, and how I would sign it and everything because it's a completely visual description that he's giving. I often responded using some signs, which I still do,” Quinn said.

Beltran said he enjoys communicating with hearing people who sign, including those who at least attempt to do so, because it shows their consideration for the deaf community. He said he even got a job because his employer took ASL classes at ASU.

He said his employer worked in a restaurant and taught Beltran how to cook using ASL.

Beltran said that people who are deaf often struggle to find jobs due to a language barrier because a lot of times, people not only misunderstand the language but also misread the individuals who use it. 

He wrote that hearing people seem to underestimate the deaf community’s abilities and overestimate the limitations of people who are deaf. This, he said, leads to discrimination against the deaf and partial hearing community.

Evelyn Mendez, a senior studying speech and hearing science, walked into her first American Sign Language class as a nervous freshman “just to try it out.”

By the time she was done with that first semester of ASL class, she found herself in love with the language and a part of ASU’s ASL Club, a place for signers of all levels to come together and learn from each other.

Mendez joined the club as a beginner to sign language, and said the more advanced members of the club helped her learn along the way.

She believes that every hearing person should learn American Sign Language. She said that while the world has made progress in accommodating disabilities, “nobody really takes the time to make ASL accessible for people that need it.”

She said that people shouldn’t be afraid to take that step into signing culture.

“They just care that you communicate with them,” she said. “They don’t care if you mess up, they don’t care if you’re doing it slowly. … They really enjoy other people learning sign language.”

Editor’s note: Due to a language barrier, Juan Beltran’s quotes were edited for clarity.

Reach the reporter at or follow @jsphprzz on Twitter.

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