The official blog of Safari Bill (Dr. William Vicars)-- Lexicographer, protologism developer, enchiridion author, ASL evangelist, and immersion excursion guide.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Is American Sign Language a "Universal Language?"

Dr. Vicars,
If you have the time, I have just 2 questions:
The question about the universality of ASL seems to be popping up a lot lately. Some educators seem to believe that you can go to any other country, and with the exception of grammar (yellow house vs house yellow), people can communicate effectively using ASL. Others, who I seem to be more inclined to believe, teach that ASL is not universal and the only 'ASL signers' who can communicate effectively with each other are from the US and some parts of Canada. I want to teach the right concepts... My other questions is...When you teach the ASL alphabet, is it called mnemonics or initialized words when you teach handshapes by using the lst letter of the word; for example, A for Ape, O for Owl, etc?
I know you're a very busy guy, and I appreciate you taking the time to read my questions.
Kathy Hazzard

ASL is not a “universal language” but it is used in many places throughout the world.
In addition to being widely used in North America and Guatemala, ASL is also used in varying degrees in the Philippines, Ghana, Nigeria, Chad, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Zaire, Central African Republic, Cote d'Ivoire, Mauritania, Kenya, Madagascar, Benin, Togo, Zimbabwe, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Source: Grimes, Barbara F. (editor), (1996). "Languages of USA" Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 13th Edition. Institute of Linguistics. Retrieved 2 June, 2004: <>
While ASL is a very popular language, it is certainly not understood by all deaf people everywhere. Skilled speakers of ASL are however very adept at communicating with skilled users of other signed languages. If you ever attend a Deaflympics you will certainly note that signers from all over the world communicate fabulously with each other despite being from different countries.
I believe that the use of ASL will continue to spread throughout the world similar to the way spoken English has spread throughout the world.
Time will tell.
Dr. Bill