You might think that American Sign Language is a modern language. You’ve probably seen people who are deaf or hard of hearing communicate through hand gestures at the store, on television, or in school. Even though ASL is considered a modern form of communication, ASL traces its roots back to around 250 years ago in Europe. In today’s blog from Akorbi, we explain the vibrant history of American Sign Language.
Who Invented Sign Language First?
Although no formal American Sign Language came about until the early 1800s, prehistoric humans likely utilized some kind of signs to explain concepts they couldn’t talk about. Rather than say, “The mammoth walked across the plain,” early humans might have mimicked what a mammoth’s motions were like when walking on flat ground.
First Formal School in 1771
A French Catholic priest named Charles Michel de L’Eppe founded the first school for the deaf in Paris in 1771. This was a culmination of 20 years of work. Legend has it L’Epee encountered two deaf sisters in an impoverished section of Paris. Their mother wanted her daughters to learn about religion, so the priest dedicated the rest of his life to educating the deaf. L’Epee is credited with inventing the first modern sign language, known as French Sign Language. His school lives on today at the National Institute for Deaf Children of Paris.
First American School in 1817
Nearly 50 years later, Laurent Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet founded the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. Gallaudet spent three years perfecting a teaching method for American Sign Language based on French Sign Language. Clerc taught at the school in Hartford until the 1850s. By 1863, there were 22 schools for the deaf in the United States. All of them were free to attend.
Gallaudet College in 1864
Thomas Gallaudet’s son, Edward, persuaded Congress to create a college solely for people who are deaf in Washington, D.C., called Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind. Eight students enrolled in 1864, and three young men graduated in 1869. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the diplomas of the three graduates back then, a tradition that continues today. The college portion of the institute was renamed in Gallaudet’s honor in 1894. Gallaudet University is the only liberal arts deaf university that exists in the world today.
American Sign Language continues to grow in notoriety in modern times. It’s a living, breathing language that continues to evolve from its roots. ASL is a testament to not only the goodness in human beings, but also to the ingenuity of the capacity for humans to learn.