The difference between ASL and SEE

There has been quite a bit of linguistic debate between ASL and SEE. Many people do not understand some of the fundamental differences nor do they understand the histories of these two different communication methods. Both ASL and SEE are valid communication choices, there is nothing wrong with choosing one over the other, yet parents and students alike need to understand the differences between them so they can make the appropriate choice for themselves and or their families. This blog post will go over just a few of those differences.

Before I begin explaining the differences, let me dispel one large myth about sign language in general, its universalism. Sign languages are not universal. While all sign languages have some things in common they differ greatly across the world. The same can be said about spoken languages; they share some things, and differ in many others. The only thing that is universal between sign languages is the use of the hands and facial expressions to get concepts across, just as the only thing that is universal in spoken language is the use of voice and tones to get concepts understood. even in countries who share the same base language, their sign languages will differ greatly. Take the United States and Britain. They both are predominately English speaking and use the same alphabet, but ASL and BSL (British Sign Language) are vastly different, even to the point of using different signs for their alphabet.


ASL Alphabet

BSL alphabet


Signing Exact English (SEE-II) is a manually coded English. There have been multiple different forms of SEE, the first of which was actually called Seeing Essential English (SEE-I). This is the form that generally isn’t used any longer, and instead of a single sign for butterfly, a person would sign butter and fly. SEE-I was created by David Anthony, who is a British deaf man who was born to deaf Parents. His first language is British Sign Language. He created SEE-I, which is also known as Morphemic Sign System, to attempt to solve an issue of poor English skills among deaf children, who were learning English as a Second Language. When Anthony created SEE-I he never intended it to be used as every day communication, he intended it to be used purely for Literacy instruction, as he had told me in a conversation. SEE-I seen as incomplete and inadequate, so others changed it, creating SEE-II. This manually coded English system incorporates ASL signs, English structure and some of its own. SEE-II (Commonly just referred to as SEE) uses word endings, such as –er, -ed, and -ing. It signs each and every word that would be spoken or written. Words such as Van, Car and Truck are signed differently in SEE-II using an initialized system, as are Beautiful and pretty, which in ASL are the same sign. Due to SEE being a manual system of English, it is also quite literal. In English, someone would say “Beat around the Bush”, and in SEE, this would be signed. If a person looks at it conceptually, they would see someone hitting something around a bush, and it could make very little sense to them.

American Sign Language is a distinct language on its own. It has its own complex grammar structure, idioms and phrases. It is separate and distinct from English. Many people to this day still see ASL as purely pointing this couldn’t be further from the truth. Other people see ASL as a manually coded English, this also is false. ASL doesn’t share a grammatical structure with English, the grammar used to interpret this post in ASL vs the grammar used to write this in English would be different, just as if I were to translate this post into Spanish. (in another post I will explain the difference between interpretation and translation, as these are commonly confused as well). ASL is also a naturally developing language, and a living language. What I mean by this is it is not a code that was developed, but was grown from the use by deaf individuals. ASL began its development when Laurent Clerc and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet brought OSF (French Sign Language) to the states and started teaching using it. In this way, you can say ASL is got its origins from French Sign Language, (and still currently share over fifty percent of their signs) just as English is derived from other languages. Since this time, it has grown, changed and become its own distinct language. ASL uses a time, topic, comment grammar structure, whereas English uses as subject verb object structure. Just as in English there isn’t a strict rule as to how the words must be placed, the same goes for ASL. It is also important to note, ASL doesn’t use variations of “to be” like English does, there are no signs for words such as: am, is, are, or were. Verbs are also different in ASL, there is no runnING, or teachING but rather it depends on the sign as to how you signify it is a verb, the general rule is to perform the sign twice, but there are always exceptions to the rules.

While neither of these are the one way to go when instilling language in a deaf child, the important thing is to get language. There are other manually coded systems of English, such as Cued Speech. Each of these communication strategies (or for lack of a better word, languages) have their place and appropriateness. No one is better than the other, but the distinctions are important. It is important to note, that SEE-I and SEE-II are not languages themselves, but are manual systems of English. ASL on the other hand is a language on its own. There are other systems, such as CASE (Conceptually Accurate Signed English) that attempt to combine the two even further.

For more information, you can look here ( Here ( here ( and many other places.