American Sign Language and Signed Exact English – What’s the Difference?

We had a decision to make when Noah started learning sign language.  Did we want to teach him American Sign Language (ASL) or Signed Exact English (SEE).  At the time, I didn’t know there was a difference.  Boy, did I have a lot to learn!!!!

American Sign Language

American Sign Language is exactly that – it’s a language, with its own grammar, syntax and idioms.  The structure of American Sign Language is as different from English as any other language.     

Signed Exact English

Signed Exact English uses the same hand signs and vocabulary as ASL, but it follows the grammar and usage rules of the English language.  Using SEE involves simply replacing (or in our case accompanying) the spoken word with the appropriate hand sign.

Why it Matters

If you want to learn sign language in order to master the language and to be able to communicate fluently within the deaf community, it is essential that you learn not just the vocabulary, but the entirety of ASL.  While most deaf people who use ASL will be able to understand your signing vocabulary, in order to integrate and be accepted within the deaf community, a full understanding and proper usage of their language and their culture is necessary.  It is a similar dynamic to what it is like for us to listen to a foreginer who is trying to communicate with us using proper vocabulary but incorrect word order. You can figure out their message, but a conversation would be difficult.

For those of us who are using sign language to lay the foundation of speech with our children or to introduce them to the vocabulary of ASL, Signed Exact English is more appropriate.  Just like learning any foreign language, you have to start with vocabulary.  If later it becomes necessary to become fluent in ASL, it will be a simple matter of plugging the vocabulary you have already mastered into the framework of the rules of ASL.  Imagine how easy it would be to learn, say, Spanish if you already knew how to say all of the words.

In our case, I initially chose ASL for Noah.  I thought if we were going to the trouble to learn a whole new vocabulary, we might as well learn the language to go with it.  In time, though, it became evident that SEE was much more appropriate for preparing the way for Noah to speak. 

For a more detailed explanation of  SEE and its benefits, visit


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