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How does American Sign Language compare with spoken language?

The letters of the alphabet in American Sign Language.
The letters of the alphabet in American Sign Language.

In spoken language, words are produced by using the mouth and voice to make sounds. But for people who are deaf (particularly those who are profoundly deaf), the sounds of speech are often not heard, and only a fraction of speech sounds can be seen on the lips. Sign languages are based on the idea that vision is the most useful tool a deaf person has to communicate and receive information.

American Sign Language Shirt is a language completely separate and distinct from English. It contains all the fundamental features of language—it has its own rules for pronunciation, word order, and complex grammar. While every language has ways of signaling different functions, such as asking a question rather than making a statement, languages differ in how this is done. For example, English speakers ask a question by raising the pitch of their voice; ASL users ask a question by raising their eyebrows, widening their eyes, and tilting their bodies forward.

Just as with other languages, specific ways of expressing ideas in ASL vary as much as ASL users do. In addition to individual differences in expression, ASL has regional accents and dialects. Just as certain English words are spoken differently in different parts of the country, ASL has regional variations in the rhythm of signing, form, and pronunciation. Ethnicity and age are a few more factors that affect ASL usage and contribute to its variety.