Technology is Impacting the Evolution of American Sign Language 

By: Sarah Roberts
a woman and a man using sign language

Languages continually evolve. Sign languages are no exception. Whether it’s incorporating new vocabulary, developing slang, assimilating words from other languages or something else, languages are dynamic and constantly adapting. Today, technology plays a pivotal role in many of these linguistic shifts.  

Verbit turned to Blake Sansonese, a long-time American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter and CODA, for some insights on recent changes he’s observed while interpreting across various domains, both in-person and virtually. Join us to explore some ways that modern communication methods and technology have caused ASL to evolve.  

Adapting ASL to a virtual world 

When the pandemic caused a massive shift to virtual communication, ASL interpreters had to adapt to ensure they were getting the complete message across.  

“Working in virtual educational settings, information has to be repeated many times for individuals using ASL,” said Sansonese. “This could be because a student has another person ‘pinned’ and missed what the interpreter says or is looking at another tab when the information is originally said by the instructor.” 

Other times, Sansonese said there are “technical issues that prevent clear video transmission. Audio transmitted first over video conference platforms requires much less bandwidth and internet strength than video, so as a result things on video may be freezing or delayed while the spoken language is being transmitted smoothly.” 

Some adaptations interpreters had to make directly affected the way they sign.  

“Traditionally, one’s signing space would be in the area right above the head, right outside of the shoulders, and above the waistline,” said Sansonese. “In the virtual world, however, you’re restricted to about your midsection and very little room above your head.” 

Shifting the signing space also caused distinct changes to certain words. 

“Specifically, signs like ‘out’ and ‘show-off’ have to be adjusted to fit within the camera angle,” Sansonese said.  

In the case of videos for mobile devices, the range of motion might be even more restricted. Overall, this is forcing some signs to become smaller. In other cases, people are even adapting words or phrases that require two hands into signs with a single hand to better fit in a video call.  

a young man using sign language to communicate in a video call

New and changing words and phrases 

ASL is over two centuries old, so it has adopted new signs for anything from automobiles to Snapchat. Technology doesn’t just lead to new words and phrases, it can also cause changes to existing ones.  

One example Sansonese pointed to is the sign for “phone.” Original telephones had a stand and an earpiece that a person held up to their ear. That changed into one piece that a person held with a single hand and eventually became a smaller mobile device.  

As telephones evolved, so did the signs for them because languages adapt to changes in the world. Take the English word “leech,” which once referred to doctors or “miracle workers,” but became associated with the blood-sucking worm because of its use by medical practitioners. Long after doctors ceased using leeches, the word means both the worm-like creature and an individual who takes from others — a far cry from its original meaning.  

While these linguistic changes may happen over centuries, some factors make shifts in ASL occur more quickly. First, only about 500,000 people communicate using ASL. That modest number means changes can take place much faster than in a language that millions of people use.  

Secondly, many children born Deaf have hearing parents and learn ASL in an educational setting. Linguistic changes occur more rapidly in such environments than they do when a language is passed down from generation to generation.  

The result is that it can even feel difficult to keep up, leading to potential communication problems and a sense that the language needs to be protected and preserved.  

A red rotary phone

Technology helps ASL grow but in a controversial way 

The rise of social media is another contributing factor in changes to languages as it allows new words and phrases to rapidly spread to other parts of the world. In the case of ASL, viral videos on platforms like TikTok expose more people to the language and inspire some young people to learn it. While that might sound like good news, some view it as a mixed bag. There is a fear that those who learn ASL this way are learning it wrong and not for the right reasons.  

For instance, social media allows people to learn curse words or small bits of songs in ASL, but many aren’t using the language to communicate. This trend can be interpreted as disrespectful to Deaf culture.  

On the bright side, ASL isn’t just getting more popular on social media, it’s also becoming an in-demand course of study on university campuses. In fact, Cornell University recently added two more instructors to accommodate the high demand for ASL courses. The University held its first ASL course in 2019 with 33 students enrolling. By 2022, more than 150 students had signed up for the class. Those courses teach more than ASL — they also cover issues in Deaf culture and social justice issues that impact the Deaf community. The increased interest suggests there could be something positive about the TikTok trend if exposure fosters more interest in truly learning ASL and gives a larger platform to content creators who are Deaf.   

a smart phone with icons for Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp and YouTube

Celebrating the Evolution of ASL 

ASL’s ongoing evolution in the digital age highlights the language’s adaptability and capacity to foster rich, dynamic communication. Although not without some challenges, ASL’s been able to successfully transition to online spaces and even use those platforms for growth and increased awareness. Although concerns over the preservation of the language and culture remain, the exposure is helping recruit many students who are truly invested in learning ASL and appreciating the contributions of Deaf culture.

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