Is ASL the 3rd or 4th Most Used Language in USA?

I often hear that American Sign Language (ASL) is the "third most common language in the United States".

I find this hard to believe when I encounter other languages on a daily basis far more than ASL. I hardly ever see others use ASL when I am out and about, unless I am near a school for the deaf or a community of signers. If I am not with my friends who sign or if I am not looking for signers, I will maybe meet one or two people who actually use ASL or some sort of sign language, within an entire year. Also, I encounter more people using other forms of sign language other than ASL (SEE, PSE, more English like signing).

I doubt the claim that ASL is the third or fourth most used language in the United States. I have to wonder why there are many people stating that ASL is the third or fourth most common language without thinking about where this information came from.

The only information I could find on this is from Gallaudet's Library's FAQ (2004 online source). Here is an excerpt from this site:

American Sign Language (ASL) is commonly said to be "the fourth most-used language in the United States" (alternatively phrased as "the third most-used non-English language in the U.S."). This claim has been around since the early 1970s. We have seen an assertion that this comes from research done for the Bilingual Courts Act of 1974, which supposedly established that ASL was the fourth most-used language in the U.S. However, we have been unable to locate this research, or any citation to it, for verification.

And another excerpt:

In any case, the relative rankings of languages decades ago are not necessarily the same as the rankings after the beginning of the 21st Century. Harlan Lane, Robert Hoffmeister, and Ben Bahan say, in A journey into the deaf-world (San Diego, Calif.: DawnSignPress, 1996, p.42):

ASL is the language of a sizeable minority. Estimates range from 500,000 to two million speakers in the U.S. alone; there are also many speakers in Canada. Compared to data from the Census Bureau, which counts other language minorities, ASL is the leading minority language in the U.S. after the "big four": Spanish, Italian, German, and French.

In other words, according to Lane, Hoffmeister and Bahan, ASL is currently the sixth most-used language in the U.S., or the fifth most-used non-English language in the U.S. Read More . . .

On this website, they provide information from the Census Bureau and other sources. If we were to learn that 2,000,000 Americans use ASL, it would fall behind Spanish and Chinese, making it the third most used language, according to the information collected from the Census Bureau in 2000. However, if it is more likely that 500,000 people in the United States are ASL users, then it would be the twelfth most used language falling behind Portuguese. Unfortunately, the Census Bureau did not include ASL when they surveyed languages. Yet, an almanac using this information from the Census Bureau repeats the common idea that ASL "is the fourth most used language in the United States today." (Gallaudet Library FAQ, 2004).

There seems to be a lot of confusion and lack of information about how many people actually use ASL in the United States.

Is there any new information about this?

I would be interested to know just how many people are currently using ASL in the United States. If it is as commonly used as Chinese and Spanish, why am I not seeing more ASL users? I encounter more Spanish and Chinese languages in a week than ASL or signed languages in a year.

It does not really matter if we ever find out how many people actually use ASL or signed languages. But, it would be nice to see more people sign.

What do you think? Any information about this?




  1. do you think there are more chinese speakers than ASL users?

  2. Well, I encounter them way more than ASL users. It depends on where I am. I am always shocked to meet a stranger who knows or uses ASL (I don't count those who know the alphabet).

  3. In fact, I can think of several places I can go to if I want to listen to people speak Mandarin or Cantonese. ASL or signed languages? I can only think of a few places.

  4. According to a prominent San Diego University researcher. Sign language use accounts for less than 1-1/2 percent of the entire deaf population. No way it can make it to the 3rd or 4th most used language.

  5. Hi.

    It seem unlikely. According to The American FactFinder (, the only information I could really narrow down can be found from this document that I found. Click on the following link:

    *or copy and paste if the links do not work!*

  6. One reference I read years ago is that it was the fourth most popular *studied* language, counting all courses offered in high schools and colleges. That seems to make sense.

  7. Dianrez, that sounds more plausible.

  8. More and more children and families are learning ASL today than ever before. Many preschools, daycare centers and elementary schools now have ASL as part of their curriculum. With TV programs like Signing Time, it is becoming a popular language to learn. As these children continue to learn and grow, I believe we will see a lot more signing going on. Signing Time Academy now has instructors in several countries around the world, as well.

  9. I would also like to mention that many families with Autistic children find ASL to be the most effective way of communicating. The autistic children I've connected with are more comfortable with ASL because it does not require looking at faces so much.

  10. Interesting. I encounter ALOT of ASL users here in Idaho and in Utah. Always amazes me how many people I bump into that know ASL. Always thought it was accurate that ASL was the thir dor fourth most common language in the USA.

  11. I personally thought that only about 2% of Americans know ASL. I am amazed how many people claim that they know ASL, but really only know the ABC's. It cracks me up.

    Thanks for sharing,

  12. I have over the years seen various people signing. I don't know if they were using ASL or not(didn't know the language then to even know they were using ASL or not). My thinking is this: you never notice something in particular unless it envolves you. For example, you probably never notice when houses are up for sale, but then when you are buying or selling a house you see it everywhere. It jumps out at you. I think it is the same with ASL and those who sign. I never really noticed the people who are signing, but now that I'm in school and studying for the American Sign language Studies, I notice them everywhere. It's very possible that it is the 3rd or 4th language in the U.S.

  13. How true is it that you hardly notice something in particular, until it involves you, especially in the beginning.

    I use sign language at work frequently and I am around signers a significant amount of time--but, when I am out and about doing errands or doing typical things, I will hardly ever run into or come across people signing. Spanish? Yes. Mandarin? Yes. German? Not so much. Sign language? Rarely.

    I have traveled a lot. And at the various places I have gone to, I ran into only a handful of people who sign, not people learning sign language or who know the alphabet, but real, fluent signers.

    In my opinion, it does not seem plausible that sign language is the 3rd or 4th most used languge in the U.S. There is no concrete evidence backing up this claim.

  14. Then there's Esperanto.

  15. ASL is the third or fourth most used language in the united states and o. Of the easiest to learn and one of the hardest to use. I travel every where and i run into more people communicating inASL then Chines and more then spanish. Society has a fear of diversity. Exspecialy if the peopledont know ASL. People deal with it times change and this is what it is. Just accept it. Thanks.

  16. It is likely still in the top 10 (Mitchell et al. 2006). However, we do not have current numbers because the U.S. Census Bureau changes respondents entries of ASL to English (Mitchell et a. 2006, Jarashow & Young 2012).

    Mitchell, R. E., Young, T. A., Bachleda, B., & Karchmer, M. A. (2006). How Many People Use ASL in the United States? Why Estimates Need Updating Ross E. Mitchell, Travas A. Young, Bellamie Bachleda, and Michael A. Karchmer. Language, 6(3).

    Jarashow B & Young, T. (inPress) ASL and US Census Bereau: What happened with the 2010 Result? What can we do? in Deaf Studies Today: Beyond Talk. Paper presented at Deaf Studies Today! 2012: Beyond Talk, UVU Orem Utah, Utah valley University.

  17. I think the statistic encompasses all the various codes of sign language in America (ASL PSE, SEE I, SEE II, MCE, etc) because only about 3% of all Deaf signers use pure ASL with no English influence (just as very few Americans speak pure and perfect English with no slang). If they collected this data via self-report, many Deaf individuals do not know the grammatical and syntactical uniqueness of ASL, never having studied the formal language in educational setting, and believe that because they are Deaf in American, they must be using American Sign Language, even when their language may be categorized in another code.

    I also think this statistic takes into account ALL sign language users, even those who are not Deaf such as children of Deaf adults (CODAs), interpreters, and any other fluent individuals.

    Just as an aside, someone mentioned previously that children with Autism use sign language because it does not require looking at someone's face as much. This is quite inaccurate, signed languages depend on and require eye contact and the majority of the message is conveyed with facial grammar (movement of the eyebrows, various mouth morphemes) therefore it is imperative to look at the person when you communicating with someone in sign language in order to convey and understand the message clearly.


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