Sign Language

Major Question

How does the structure of sign language and spoken language compare?

Specific Question

How is the grammar, and more specifically the use of determiners, in sign and spoken language different, if at all?

What is Sign Language?

10 things you should know about ASL!

According to The National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, ASL is “a complete, complex language that employs signs made with the hands and other movements, including facial expressions and posture of the body” (American Sign Language. n.d.).

Many people believe that sign language is based off of spoken language. However, this is not the case. ASL follows its own development and is an independent language of its own. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that American Sign Language may actually have more in common with spoken languages other than English (Sign Language, n.d.).

Grammar of Sign Language

Every language, whether it is for signing or speaking, has it's own set of rules. These rules are called grammar. American sign language has it's own set of rules, not only for grammar, but for phonology, morphology, syntax and pragmatics as well (American Sign Language, n.d.).

Phonology of Sign Language

Syntax of Sign Language

Morphology of Sign Language

Sign Language vs. Spoken Language

Although most people would think that American Sign Language and spoken American English would be very similar, but this is not the case. Overall, oral language and signed language are completely independent of each other and are even developmentally different (Liddell, 2003). The grammars of signed language and spoken language, from the same area, do not resemble each other in terms of syntax. For example, the syntax of American sign language has more in common with the spoken Japanese language (American Sign Language, n.d.).

In spoken language, the most important tools to communicate are the different sounds that are created by words and intonation. On the other hand, sign language is based on sight. It is believed that sight is the most useful tool to a deaf person in order to communicate and receive information. ASL uses a variety of cues in order to effectively convey the appropriate message (American Sign Language, n.d.). In ASL, the visual component of sight is manipulated through its unique features. Because of this, sign language has the ability to present different ideas and meanings at the same time (Liddell, 2003). In sign language, the “listener” can understand a while scene at once. On the other hand, oral language only allows us to comprehend one thought or sound at a time. For Example, in spoken language, the speaker will often add descriptions about what they are talking about. In sign language, however, the signs will still remain relatively the same, but hand position and facial expressions may be manipulated to convey extra detailed information (Sign Language, n.d.).


Just like spoken languages, ASL requires plenty of practice before it can be used fluently. ASL (and other variations of sign language) contains all of the necessary features that a language needs in order to operate on its own. It has its own rules for grammar, punctuation and sentence order. Comparatively to English, speakers will use a particular tone of voice to convey a question, whereas ASL users may tilt their bodies a certain way or wiggle their eyes and eyebrows (American Sign Language, n.d.).

Instructional Videos


The first video is the sign language alphabet, set to a children's song. It is designed to be an easy way for children to learn sign language!

The second video is of a girl signing a popular song. By both hearing the lyrics and seeing the signs, you are able to understand how different sign language and spoken language actually are. Some things to pay attention to in the video are: the lack of determiners and the signing of phrases instead of individual words.

Additional Research

Group Members