Why Write American Sign Language?

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As one of our New Year’s resolutions, ASLwrite would like to make it easier for you to learn written ASL! We will have a 6-week course in written ASL featured here on the website, Twitter, and Facebook. It’s a great complement to the How to Write American Sign Language book!

Today, we’re starting the Written ASL Basics course! Feel free to watch the video or read the text.


Why write American Sign Language?

There are two parts to this question — expressive ASL, and writing itself.

Why is it important to have expressive ASL? I’ve mentioned before that language is a depository of a culture’s history and values. In the case of ASL, we have a unique set of values that are ingrained in the language.

Let me tell you a story. Robert Sirvage, a DeafBlind researcher, was studying Deaf Space when he came across something interesting. He had set up a camera within a hall at Gallaudet, filming people who were conversing with each other as they travelled down the hall. Those who were speaking moved independently of each other. In contrast, two signers moved forward with each other. When one person stepped back, the other shifted closer. The two signers’ physical spaces became one unit so well that they moved around obstacles together.

The very nature of signing ASL is inclusion. A conversation is not only about the person who is signing but about the person listening. It is a two-way interaction, and this is one of the core values of the signing community. We have a unique way of interacting with each other, and that affects how we express ourselves within American Sign
Language word choices and structure. It is part of the values we pass on through our language.


Second, take a moment to think about writing itself. In your daily life, have you noticed how much writing is in your surroundings?

For example, when you go to your workplace there are large “EXIT” signs above certain doors. Why are the signs there and not auditory warnings that blare “EXIT, EXIT, EXIT”? I would imagine things becoming quite noisy and confusing with so many items blaring out their names. Reducing it to a specific visual area and emphasis makes it much easier to process.

The time it takes to recognize letters and understand meaning is a lot faster than the time it takes to listen to a word. This applies to both spoken English and signed ASL. When we read various things in text, like newspapers and online articles, we process the words at our own pace. We are able to digest and absorb concepts within our means.

Not only that, paper is an excellent, inexpensive and portable technology. A lot of information can fill one page of text. Digital technology, for all its possibilities, still borrows the principles of text on paper.


Now, I’ve explained the values of ASL and the benefits of writing. When we combine the two, we get written ASL.

Let me give you a little bit of my background. I’m an artist, and I’m a writer. Those two skills are combined in my comics. For a long time I struggled with showing my native language, ASL, in my work. I would see other people writing in English or Spanish, and feel frustrated that I could not do the same for my own language. Sometimes I would draw my characters frozen mid-word, but that didn’t work. It was not a true representation.

When I saw written ASL (si5s), I was thrilled to discover the intuitive ways that it captured ASL in efficient strokes. Si5s fit the parameters for writing well. After that, I picked it up and kept going.

The good news is that if you watched the video, you already are fluent in ASL.It will be much easier to start writing because of your innate understanding of the language. Once you make the mental connection between your signs and the written words, the rest will flow.

If you have any questions and concerns during this course, please do email me at adrean@aslwrite.com. Do feel free to comment and share your thoughts below as well!

NEXT: The ASL Digibet

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