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How To Learn Sign Language

ASL is not English! Part 1 – Grammar

Recently it has been coming up in several
different places on my Facebook, the internet, some
discussions about how some people believe that ASL is based on
English. They say ASL is “English on the hands” or
other variations of that idea. I’ve tried to explain to them that ASL is NOT
English, but I realized that the problem is that I am
trying to explain IN ENGLISH! It’s hard to explain ASL in English. I decided to make this vlog to help explain
the difference. One thing people tend to say is that ASL has
a Subject-Verb-Object like English. It is true that ASL tends to
have the SVO word order. But, did you know that other languages, like
Spanish, French, and Chinese, also have SVO word order? Does that mean French, Spanish, and CHINESE
are English too? Of course not. ASL does tend to have the SVO word order, but there are other word orders possible in
ASL. ASL has a flexible word order. But it must be understood that some other
languages also have a flexible word order. For example, Latin, Romanian, and Finnish
have flexible orders. But even though they may have flexible word
orders, but Finnish is one that tends to have an SVO
order also. Same goes for ASL. It has a flexible order,
but it TENDS to use SVO also. ASL has some word orders that are not SVO. For example, ASL often uses “topicalization”, which is an OSV word order. For example,
“CAT, DOG BITE”. In that sentence, the cat is the object and
the dog is the subject and what the dog did is bite the cat. That is OSV. English does have a similar
pattern in that you can say “The cat was bitten by
the dog”. But if you will notice, even in that
sentence, English follows…. ‘The cat’ is the object ‘was bitten’ is the verb, ‘by the dog’, which is the Subject. So it is still not the same word order as
ASL. But there are other languages that tend to
always use OSV, like an indigeneous tribe in Brazil which speaks
“Xavante”, or another tribe in South America in
Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname which speaks “Warao”. ASL also has a rhetorical sentence structure as in “TOMORROW RAIN, GAME CANCEL”. In English, you can have the conditional, but
the sentence structure will be different. It would be “The game will be cancelled if it
rains tomorrow”. So again, the idea is the same, but the word
order is different. ASL does not have articles like “the”, “a”,
“an”. English has these articles. ASL doesn’t have prefixes like “un-“, “pre-“,
“in-” nor does it have many suffixes. There is really only one suffix in ASL – the
AGENT suffix in WORKER, PLAYER, etc. ASL does not tend to add affixes to ASL
signs. English does add affixes to English words. English shows time through a sequence of
words, including time-related words. ASL uses space and movement to show time and
tense. ASL also uses space and movement to show
Subject and Object. Like for example, the sign GIVE. You can’t
just hold it there. It is meaningless. You must have a subject and object, as in
I-GIVE-YOU. “I gave to you” “You give to me” “He gives to me” But you can add additional information just
with facial expression and signs. GIVE-TO-ME GIVE-TO-ME-REPEATEDLY GIVE-TO-ME-REPEATEDLY-SO-OFTEN-UNTIL-I-BECOME-SICK-OF-IT English required a whole long sentence to say
that. ASL incorporated all that information into
one sign. They are different languages. I mentioned how ASL uses space in different
ways, including to show time — English uses words like “tomorrow”,
“yesterday”, “will” to show time. ASL does also use some of those same words, plus ASL uses space and the body to show
time. You know ASL has a “timeline” on the body — If a sign is close to the body, it often
indicates present tense, like “NOW”, “TODAY”. If the sign is ahead and away from the body,
it tends to show future “TOMORROW”. “WILL”. Or if the sign goes backwards toward the
back, it tends to show past. “PAST”. “YESTERDAY”. “BEFORE”. “A-LONG-TIME-AGO”. All of that shows again that ASL is not

15 Replies to “ASL is not English! Part 1 – Grammar”

  • It's nice to learn something new about Xavantes and Warao. I think ASL has two more suffixes…-ish, and -er. Maybe a few more? I can't think for now. Or maybe not after all.

  • Thank you for your time. It is very important to educate those people who think ASL is English, but ASL is NOT English at all!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    For sure, I know that not many Deaf people haven't taken ASL as a linguistic course! The question for those who haven't taken any ASL courses is how can you be sure?

  • @Salticid68 no, ASL does not have "-ish". That is an English suffix. "-ing", "-ness", "ment" are also English suffixes.

  • @DrDonGCSUS I don't know what to say. Are you Einstein of ASL? I've seen "-ish" in ASL. You said just one suffix in ASL, but you forgot "-er". And maybe or maybe not a few more.

  • @Salticid68 I did mention -er. But -ish, if it's used, is a borrowing from English, but not formally part of ASL. It's fingerspelled, and there is no sign for -ish.

  • Why then did you use PSE in this video? Trying to explain ASL in PSE? Help me understand why you've been unable to explain ASL in strictly ASL?

  • @DrDonGCSUS Yes, you're right you did mention -er. I thought you mentioned something else. No, it's not fingerspelling for -ish. Purplish = sign "p" in swivel motion (purple) + closed fist with opening pinkie in "z" motion or '5' sign in clockwise motion (-ish). We need to have Oxford version of ASL dictionary. It'll help advance our ASL and reduce fingerspelling. I remember I saw an ASL book which had signs for peanut depending on regions. I forgot the signs and should have bought that book.

  • @MrCrandyknows I'm not sure if you realized this, but the video IS captioned — click on the "cc" button at the bottom.

    You can learn grammar and syntax from taking a good ASL course at a local college, but the best way to learn grammar and syntax would be to take an ASL linguistics course. But unfortunately there are not too many of those…. you can take it at my university!

  • @LenAndRen1998 I am currently living in the SF Bay area, but I first learned signs in the Washington, DC area. I don't think my signs are that much different from those of most of Deaf people. Perhaps it is that you use signed English or some form of signed English? That is the only explanation I can think of for why you might think my signs are so different from yours.

  • This is probably a stupid question, but I've noticed that you sometimes mouth the English words (together with what is I presume to be the respective ASL signs). How would you describe such a situation? Is it in any way comparable to, say, speaking one language and thinking in another?

  • It's a complicated issue, but you might want to check out my vlog "5 degrees of bilingualism" as partial answer to this question. Check out the other links in the description to that vlog as well.

    But yes, in part, it is related to my first language of English influencing my use of my second language, ASL.

  • This is a result of language contact at the individual level. I was raised orally, so I do think mostly in English, but I can sign in ASL. But because of my primary English influence, my ASL is more heavily influenced by English, including the mouthing.

  • Thank you very much for the video. I have just stareted learning ASL and grammar is one of the key reasons I can't wait to take a class. I love the expressive nature of ASL and look forward to learning more! Thanks!

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