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ASL & English: ASL/PSE/MCEs


American Sign Language (ASL)

As its name denotes, American Sign Language is an actual language. It is a conceptually based language that uses hand and body position and movement, as well as facial expressions, as opposed to most other languages, which use spoken and written forms of communication. ASL is a different language than English; it is not just hand signals that represent English words that spell sentences in English word order. Rather, ASL has its own vocabulary, grammar rules, common expressions, wordplay, etc.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines ASL as "A visual language based on hand shape, position, movement, and orientation of the hands in relation to each other and the body" (47 CFR § 64.601). Refer to the parameters of ASL.

ASL and systems of MCE are the predominantly used systems of communication by Deaf people in the United States and Canada. Other regions of the world use their own sign languages, such as the U.K. where deaf people use BSL and Australia where Auslan is used.

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Manually Coded English (MCE)

Manually Coded English, or MCE, refers to a number of signing systems that are metalanguages, or codes, for English. MCEs are often simply referred to in the Deaf community as "English sign" or a variation of that term. The term "manual" in Manually Coded English can mean that the codes are not true languages but artificially contrived systems of communications, as well as that the codes are expressed manually or by hand as opposed to spoken English. In their book, A Journey into the Deaf-World, Harlan Lane and his fellow authors describe MCE systems as "any of several signing systems invented by educators to represent words in English sentences using signs borrowed from ASL combined with signs contrived to serve as translation equivalents for English function words (articles, prepositions, etc.) and prefixes and suffixes" (270).

Although many if not most Deaf people greatly prefer ASL over MCEs because ASL is conceptually based, leaving out the need to sign words such as "is," "the," and "am," and the need to adhere to English grammar, MCEs are useful in instances such as quoting English word for word, clarifying communication with English speakers, and teaching English to the deaf. Not uncommonly, even those who prefer ASL will use a sign from an MCE system to clarify the exact meaning of a word. The continuum between pure ASL and English has a full spectrum of varying levels of use per individual, region, and situation, with the vast majority of Deaf people (with a capital D) in the United States using ASL for most communication.

MCE systems include:

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Pidgin Sign English (PSE)

Pidgin Sign English is somewhat in the middle of the continuum between ASL and English. Researchers at The University of New South Wales have noted that a person's signing style changes depending on whom they are conversing with; two Deaf people signing together may use very conceptual sign, whereas when signing to a hearing person, their signing style can tend to become more pidginized towards English. Some hearing people who sign may not know ASL grammar well, but sign great PSE.

Continuum between ASL and MCE:

ASL                    PSE                    MCE
Conceptual         Mixed                English

PSE is also known as contact sign, or a contact language, referring to contact between people who speak different languages and how they use a pidgin to communicate.

Example Sentence:

ASL: Store, I go.
PSE: I go store.
MCE: I am go-ing to the store.

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