When it comes to sign languages, the most common one you’ll come across in the United States is American Sign Language (ASL), but it’s far from the only one.

While various sign languages have existed for centuries, standardization came much later, especially in comparison to their spoken counterparts. As deaf students began to engage in formal education here in the United States in the early 19th century, they adopted a modified variant of French Sign Language (though lip-reading served as the predominant mode of instruction until the 1960s, when deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals successfully advocated against this practice).

Over time, this modified dialect of French Sign Language would eventually evolve into the modern ASL used commonly in English-speaking America. Today, the two languages are not mutually intelligible. In fact, there are more than 300 different signed languages, with as much variation as you would find among the world’s spoken languages.

Given the fact that it was standardized fairly recently, there’s still a lot of regional variance across dialects of ASL, and many individuals who become deaf or hard-of-hearing late in life may not use it with native-level fluency, despite it being their primary mode of communication.

As a result, it’s particularly important to be knowledgeable about the different kinds of sign languages used commonly among deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals in your locale. When you’re requesting interpreting services from a language service provider, you may need to request a sign language interpreter who is familiar with a sign language variant other than ASL, such as Signed Exact English (SEE) or a particular regional dialect of ASL.

Because of the robust variety of sign languages used throughout the US, it’s common for sign language interpreters to engage in an informal conversation with the deaf or hard-of-hearing individual prior to beginning the formal interpretation. This allows them to gauge the individual’s unique speech style and ensure that they’re a good match for the individual as an interpreter.

In this blog post, we’ll take a look at some of the particularly common sign languages used across the US. This information will give you a better understanding of the diversity of sign languages and help you make informed choices about the sign language interpreting services you may need.

American Sign Language

This is the primary language of deaf and hard-of-hearing sign language users in the United States and English-speaking Canada. Derived from French Sign Language, ASL is estimated to draw a little more than half of its signs from Old French Sign Language.  

A common misconception among English speakers who aren’t familiar with the intricacies of sign language is that ASL speakers simply spell out English words and sentences in sign form — however, this is far from the case. ASL’s grammar is significantly different from English, so it’s important to make sure you’re working with an interpreter with a deep knowledge of ASL.

Regional Varieties of ASL

Since ASL was standardized fairly recently, there are several regional dialects of the language used among deaf and hard-of-hearing communities throughout the United States. Just as somebody from New York City might speak English a bit differently from somebody born and raised in Milwaukee, there are differences in the ASL used by individuals from different parts of the country.

Likewise, dialects like Black American Sign Language utilize different slang, phrases, and accents that interpreters need to keep in mind when interpreting.

Signed Exact English

While ASL and its regional varieties are all derived from French Sign Language, Signed Exact English is a one-for-one manner of rendering English into a signable format. Signed Exact English utilizes English words and grammar exactly, with signs as the primary medium.

In Signed Exact English, speakers utilize ASL signs for words and fingerspelling, placing them in the same phrase order and sentence structure as English.

This form of the language is not particularly common nowadays, thanks to the widespread acceptance of ASL in deaf education in the latter half of the 20th century. However, some individuals do indeed utilize it, so it’s important to be aware of its existence — some people who become deaf or hard-of-hearing later in life may prefer to use Signed Exact English instead of ASL, since they’re already accustomed to the grammar and spelling of English.

Pidgin Signed English

Pidgin Signed English is a blend of ASL and English, used by individuals who may be transitioning from spoken English to ASL or by those who interact frequently with both hearing and deaf communities. Unlike ASL, which has its own distinct grammar and syntax, Pidgin Signed English incorporates elements of English grammar and word order, making it a more accessible form of communication for those familiar with English, such as those who lose their hearing later in life.

PSE typically involves the use of ASL signs in English word order, and may also include more fingerspelling and mouthing of English words than traditional ASL. This mode of communication is particularly common among individuals who become deaf later in life and are more accustomed to English, as well as among hearing individuals who are learning ASL.

Tactile Signing

Tactile signing is a communication method primarily used by individuals who are deafblind, and rely on touch to convey sign language. Deafblind individuals and interpreters must physically touch so that they can communicate, as the deafblind individual will be unable to see the interpreter’s signs. This approach includes several methods, such as hand-over-hand signing, where the receiver’s hands lightly touch the signer’s hands to read the signs through movement and touch.

Home Signs

Home sign systems are gestural communication methods often spontaneously created by deaf children who aren’t exposed to adequate amounts of ASL, or other standardized sign language. When deaf children are isolated from other deaf individuals, they may develop their own signs for certain concepts for which they don’t have the standardized lexicon to express adequately.

Adult speakers may continue to use these signs to some extent as they grow up and are exposed to formal sign languages, or they may eventually drift away, so it’s important for interpreters to be aware of them.


There are several different variations of sign language used throughout the United States. While the primary sign language used in the country is ASL, there are several varieties of sign languages to keep in mind as you’re seeking out sign language interpreting:

  • ASL and its regional dialects
  • Signed Exact English
  • Pidgin Signed English
  • Tactile signing
  • Home signs

If you’re looking for sign language interpreting services, Avantpage is here to help. We have a network of specialized sign language interpreters who can help you connect with your deaf and hard-of-hearing clients or constituents — contact us today at [email protected] or (530) 750-2040 to learn more about how we can connect you to a sign language interpreter in as little as four seconds.