ASL University | Bookstore | Catalog | Dictionary | Lessons | Resources | Syllabi | Library  |  Issue 52, November, 2007  |  William G. Vicars Ed.D., Editor

Hello ASL Heroes!

Language of the Deaf Community

In a message dated 9/8/2007 8:09:42 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, an ASL teacher writes:
Dear Dr. Bill,

When I'm hanging out with my Deaf friends or interpreting for Deaf clients, I find that the 90% of them sign WAY more "Pidgin" than ASL as far as grammar rules and mouthing words, etc.  I know this is common when there are a lot of hearing people around, but I've been at parties where I was one of 2 hearing people there and as I observed conversations, I saw SO many of them voicing while signing in private conversations to other Deaf people and in general following English sentence structures.  Of COURSE there were tons of ASL features (tons of facial expressions, gestures, mouth morphemes, etc) but it's just totally different than I've been formally taught in any of my classes.  I know that's probably very similar to how conversational English and "by the book" English are totally different, but I struggle with what to teach in my classes because I have students who want to become interpreters and I don't want to teach them only conversational sign.  Do you understand my dilemma?  Do you have any suggestions?

-- "Cindy"  (Name on File)

Dear ASL Instructor,

There is a difference between "the language of the Deaf Community" and American Sign Language (ASL).

The moment certain people read that statement they are likely to pull out their knives and start advancing on me--but stay with me and I'll explain what I mean.

Let me share with you an analogy.

Do you like chicken soup?

Suppose you were to teach a student how to make chicken soup. What if you told her, fill a pot with water, put in some chicken meat and boil it. 

Are you done?  Do you have chicken soup?

Obviously there is much more to chicken soup than just chicken in hot water.
In addition to the chicken we will certainly want some vegetables (such as carrots, celery, and onions), herbs (sage, thyme, bay leaf and parsley), plus salt and usually some pasta or rice.

And while it is true that chicken is the key or most important ingredient in chicken soup, it is certainly not the only ingredient--and in most cases it isn't even the most frequently occurring ingredient.  Chicken soup is mainly noodles and water.

There is much more to the "Language of the Deaf Community" than just the form of American Sign Language cited in textbooks.
The citation form of ASL is the key or most important ingredient in the Language of the Deaf Community, but it certainly isn't the only ingredient, and -- as you've observed -- at many Deaf events "academic ASL" (note the quotes and the use of the word academic) isn't even the most frequently used ingredient.  The language of the Deaf Community is a soup. It is a continuum of ingredients. In our classes we focus on the meat of the soup (ASL) not because it is the most frequently occurring ingredient, but because it is the key or most important ingredient. It is the ingredient that adds the most flavor and is what differentiates our soup (language) from the soup of other cultures.

It is important to teach our students that the language of the Deaf Community is a continuum of communication methods and that we will be focusing on the area of that continuum known as ASL.  We are choosing to do so because ASL is the area on the continuum that is at the heart of the (American) Deaf Community.  Of all the communication styles in the continuum, ASL is the one that has all the characteristics and features of an autonomous language and thus is able to fill foreign language requirements at many high schools and colleges.


Dr. Bill
William Vicars, Ed.D.


An ASL Instructor shared with me her observation that the type of signing that is done by 90% of her Deaf friends and clients is not the type of signing that is taught in many "ASL" classes.

So, who is "right?" How do we decide what ASL "really" consists of? Do we go with 90% of the Deaf community, or a handful of Ph.D.s who write books?
There are long lists of "rules" prescribed by ASL teachers that result in a type of signing that is definitely "not" Signed English, but then again, it isn't the type of signing done by 90% of the Deaf community either. 

In considering this topic I want you to also think about a "bell curve."

The leading edge of that curve represents the formal, carefully constructed ASL examples you find in many ASL textbooks.  The hump of the curve represents the type of signing done by the majority of the Deaf Community in everyday communication.  The trailing edge of the curve represents the invented Manual English systems as taught in textbooks.
Dr. Bill

("Language of the Deaf Community" Graphic Copyright G. Vicars 2007)
(Permission granted when appropriately cited: " 2007, Used by permission.")


In a message dated 10/3/2007 7:09:16 A.M. Pacific Daylight Time, writes:
Hi, Bill. I was wondering if there were signs for the following:
Muslim (and/or Muslimah, which is means Muslim would that be Muslim + girl?)
Headscarf (the word in Arabic is Khimar, but in English it means headscarf)
Please and thank you!
Bailey Higgs
Louisville, KY
It took me a while to find a credible source.
A version of that  sign is posted at:
For example, look under the term: musliman (for Muslim).
(Dr. V of
In a message dated 10/4/2007 8:48:44 A.M. Pacific Daylight Time, writes:

Hi Bill,

I notice that the sign for "favorite" is very similar to one of the signs for "why" (5-handshape, bent middle finger).  I realize that Why is "supposed to be" signed near the forehead and off to the side, but I've seen people sign it lower (near the chin), or even in front of them.  Is there a fundamental difference (facial expression?) between these two signs, so that I can recognize whether someone is signing "why" or "favorite"?  Thanks!


Emily R. Adams
Bureau of State Financial Systems
Office of the State Comptroller
(518) 473-3215
In general, the sign for "WHY" uses a furrowed brow. 
Sometimes the eyebrows are raised (instead of furrowed) during the sign "WHY" to indicate that it is being used in a rhetorical sense.  I've seen a number of people using the sigh "WHY" with little or no facial expression to mean "because." (There are two existing signs for "because" so this would indicate a third "version" of the sign "BECAUSE.")
The citation or "formal" version of the sign WHY is generally done near the forehead.  Doing the sign lower down is simply an abbreviated form of the sign.  Additionally some people flutter the middle finger.  Other people bend the index, middle, and ring fingers ending up in a "Y" hand shape. 

The sign FAVORITE is different from WHY in that it doesn't "wiggle" or "flutter" the middle finger.  Rather the middle finger is bent forward at the large knuckle and the tip of the finger jabs the chin or jabs the space in front of the chin.
Dr. V

Looking for an ACCREDITED online ASL course?  How about one offered though the California State University system?
Check out:
For information, contact  JoAnna Rodgers (,  Program Coordinator, California State University Sacramento College of Continuing Education, 3000 State University Drive East Sacramento, CA 95819-6103 T (916) 278-4813

American Sign Language University William Vicars