Video in ASL: Gallaudet university, city of American Sign Language and Deaf culture

Check out today’s video, entirely in American Sign Language. There is no sound at all in the video, but (as always) you can click “CC” to read captions of everything in English, if you don’t understand ASL.

Last year I spent a month in Austin (TX) (excluding time spent at the SxSW festival, I had about two intensive weeks learning this language) and had learned enough to make a multilingual music video in ASL, but not enough to record a video interacting with someone.

This time (as part of my summer mission to improve each of my languages) I made it a major focus to improve my ASL to a level where I could interview people to share Deaf culture and more about ASL and how it works with the world.

So, I got some Skype based lessons in June to get back up to the level I was before, and then I went to the best place in the world to immerse in ASL and really use it; Gallaudet University!


One of my blog readers, Julianna Smith (interviewed in the video and working to become an interpreter) suggested to me that I should pay a visit to Washington D.C. while in the states, so that I could see one of the most active communities of signers in the world.

Even though I went in the summer, when the university was relatively empty, I actually got to see much more than what I had initially expected! In fact, I managed to spend two entire days of my time in the city doing absolutely everything in American Sign Language! The first (of three) days I was there, I did use some English with a hearing professor, but after that all my interactions with other people were entirely in ASL.

I arrived in the university in the morning and asked for the name of the building I was going to meet someone in ASL, we chatted, and then went for lunch. Those working at the restaurant all understand ASL, so I ordered a pizza, a salad and a soda, in the university’s language. I also went to the gift/book shop and bought a few items and was told the price in ASL.

In the video you can even see clips of a show put on by a children’s summer camp, which is given in ASL. This is a real language in every sense of the word, and the community at Gallaudet really emphasise this!

Sharing ASL with the hearing

Julianna brought up some points I had wanted the hearing to be aware of, such as the fact that ASL is not signed English, but a unique language in itself with its own grammar and word order etc., and that there is not one international commonly used sign language (there is an attempt with “Gestuno”, but local sign languages are the only ones truly used on a day to day basis), but that it developed separately in various places.

People are also surprised to find out that British Sign Language is NOT mutually intelligible with American Sign Language. In fact, ASL was inspired greatly by French Sign Language, so there is mutual intelligibility there. (Irish Sign Language was also inspired by French Sign Language)

I wrote a detailed summary of American Sign Language after my first experience learning some of it, in this blog post.

As I said in the video, I prefer ASL to English – I think it’s more efficient in expressing certain concepts and for telling stories. Going back to English after signing seems so bland and expression-less in comparison. For me it’s a window to communicate with a very different community within America (and some other places), and very much worth learning.

I still have plenty left to learn – you can see me hesitate and get confused at points in the video, although I at least had enough to interview them as I did. I’m glad to have pushed my level up a little bit, and will indeed get back into it some day!

I hope you enjoy the video and consider learning this fascinating language! Let me know your thoughts on this video in the comments below!



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  • Edmund Yong

    I saw your lips moving. Are you (and them) making any sound? If not, the university must be creepy quiet:) This is the first no-voice video I watch in my life :) Benny, Chinese have Sign Language or not? Thank you for your ‘silent’ video. It’s great

  • Justin

    I am just wondering, what made you decide on American Sign Language? You mentioned in your linked article that there is a British sign language that is not mutually intelligable with ASL. The British one would be closer to home for you, wouldn’t it?

    • Benny Lewis

      Irish Sign Language is actually based on French Sign Language, as is American. So if anything, learning ASL is much “closer to home” than learning BSL, as that’s not related at all. I can already get the gist of the signed news here in Ireland.

      As hinted to in the video, I like immersing myself with a different culture and visit America regularly for conferences and the like, so ASL is a great extra reason to be there and still learn and improve a non-English language. In Ireland I’d focus more on Gaeilge than ISL at the moment.

  • Andrew

    This is one of the coolest videos you’ve done, I really liked the part where she says that Gallaudet is much “warmer” for the deaf than the outside world because everybody signs and so, as a deaf person, you feel “included” whereas in the outside, the “hearing world”, you’re not included because you can’t hear (that’s sad). That really resonated, it makes you realize that that’s how it is for them, you gain a bit of empathy for a group of people you didn’t have before.

    Nice work.


  • SP

    Wow, great review. I’m from Indonesia, really excited to see this video so make me want to there.
    You know, my english still bad, here English can’t to apply in my head maybe because teaching methods about English for the deaf is low.
    In my life during 18 years, I use hearing aid and also read lips as communication (it’s really tired)
    Okay, I hope this site give any clue for traveler who is deaf get a lifestyle become easier especially learn other language.
    I don’t know if you can use in Bahasa, I want to say as follows:
    1. Saya berharap anda bisa menguasai bahasa Indonesia.
    2. Apakah anda benar-benar seorang tunarungu? Maaf bahasa Inggris saya kurang jadi tidak begitu menguasai artikel yang ditulis
    3. Terima Kasih/Thank you!


    • Santi

      Hi … I am from Indonesia too … so glad to know that someone from Indonesia likes ASL. From which city are you from. Apa kabar? Saya dari Jakarta…

  • Erin

    I love this, Benny! I majored in ASL in college. I haven’t used it much in recent years, but it’s a beautiful language and I would at some point love to find a way to use it more actively. I thought about signing this comment, recording it, and posting it, but…obviously I didn’t :) Anyway, love that you’re learning ASL! Awesome!

  • Benny Lewis

    There is no dominant sign language. Each country has its own, as in spoken languages. ASL may be slightly bigger, but (unlike English) it won’t be used as some in-between language. There is an attempt at a go-between sign language, used at some conferences, but you’ll never see people use it elsewhere.
    I would learn the sign language of your home country! BSL is very different to ASL and not mutually comprehensible. But once you get used to signing one language, it may perhaps be a bit easier to learn the next, especially when you appreciate signed communication and deaf culture.

  • Benny Lewis

    I understood pretty much all of it while recording the video, and got some help with particular signs I wasn’t sure about while editing that I needed a precise translation for in the subtitles. Your feeling is wrong.

    As stated in the blog post, I spent the majority of 2 days communicating entirely in ASL. You can’t do this if you can just throw out questions and not understand replies. Interaction is the core of why I learn any language.

  • Kami Blackhippiechick Brown-Sp

    I learned signed English when I learned to speak English orally, my mother’s parents are deaf. I think that’s why learning new languages has always come naturally to me. I can get the basic meaning of ASL, and am able to communicate. It’s funny. I don’t even realize when I’m signing a lot of the time…until one of my kids asks what I said ;)

  • Santi

    Hi Benny, I love watching your video. I am currently practicing my ASL. I am from Indonesia and in my country only very very few people know ASL. Most deaf here are lip reader, but they are in transition to use sign but not ASL. I wish to keep in touch with you regarding ASL.

  • Danielle Bennett

    Sometimes, signing while speaking is the only option. It’s a great way to guarantee you slip out of ASL word order though.

  • Danielle Bennett

    We used baby signs with our oldest daughter to give her language before she was verbal with great success. Then two years ago, we simultaneously crash landed in the world of medically complex parenting and having a deaf child. I can now navigate both “languages” (one being medical-ese) fairly well and after two years, am probably on a similar level of signing skills as you use in this video (I understood all of your signs without captions and many of theirs).

    Things I love about ASL and Deaf culture:
    1) Deaf people will correct you when you sign something wrong. It just naturally fits into the conversation.
    2) Likewise… they really don’t care if you use the wrong word order. Deaf people understand that you’re a novice. Is it better to sign correctly? Probably. But the focus is on communicating and that’s really all that matters.
    3) It is SO expressive. If I have a conversation with a Deaf friend, they pick up a LOT more than if I had an identical (but spoken) conversation with a hearing friend. As Julianna said… there are just some things I can’t say in English that ASL conveys so well.

    • Jessica Beaven

      This is great! very encouraging. I took three levels of ASL in college a few years ago. I love ASL and now that I have kids I have been teaching it to them. They are 5 and7. But since there is no school I can send them to to continue learning, I have been thinking to send them to Chinese school since there is a a Chinese community close to home. But wanted to get some suggestions. Since Chinese is so hard to learn, would it be worth the time invested on it? The kids have been learning ASL for a few years already, is there anyway I can help them gain fluency without a school? And finally which language would be more beneficial for them to learn in the future in California ASL or Chinese? I am looking for some language experts to help me with this decision. And input would be appreciated, thanks.

      • Danielle Bennett

        Our older daughter (who is 5) has been doing Mandarin immersion in school and doing well. I would definitely recommend it. Half her day, she’s taught in English by her English teacher; the other half is full immersion with her Chinese teacher. If you have the opportunity, I’d recommend using it.

        As for ASL, the best way to learn it is to use it. If it’s practical, look into events in your local Deaf community, especially kid centered events. And if you really want to increase their fluency, don’t use spoken English with them. At 5 and 7, they’ll pick up enough from other sources. Even if the best that works for you is making one afternoon a week “voices off”, regular practice is very critical.

        As for which will help them more long term… hard to say
        But learning languages is fun and good for little brains, so why not do both?

        • Jessica Beaven

          Thanks Danielle for replying. I am very happy for your girl. That is really amazing. I really believe that languages is a great skill for our kids to have. The Chinese immersion school here is only on Saturdays but the whole day. I think it may work out and it would be great for my kids to eventually be fluent in 4 languages. ( They are already fluent in English and Spanish). Managing our time is what is the hardest. I am not sure if we should continue with ASL first until we have the level of proficiency we want and then go to mandarin or if we should learn both simultaneously. But I guess we can try it for a year and see how it goes. Can your daughter already have a basic conversation with Chinese people?