Posted by: sbilingual | July 10, 2012

ASL vs. Cued Speech – In Search of Sanity


The main reason that I decided to learn ASL is so that I could communicate with participants at the National Ability Center that have hearing impairments.  The National Ability Center (NAC) is a non-profit organization that provides recreational opportunities for people with disabilities. In talking with the manager of the NAC ski program, I learned that very few of the ski instructors know any type of sign language. This puts participants with hearing impairments at a disadvantage.

I decided to learn ASL so that I could act as a volunteer in the NAC ski program.   Volunteers that know ASL would be useful during ski lessons that involve students who sign as their main form of communication.  With volunteering in mind, I enrolled in the ASL class at the Utah Electronic High School.

At a recent family gathering, I told an adult cousin about my goal to learn ASL. He expressed an opinion that surprised me.  He asked why I would learn ASL when Cued Speech is quickly replacing ASL as the dominant form of communication in the deaf community.  Not having an in depth knowledge of the deaf community, I could not respond to my cousin’s opinion.

After a bit of thought, I decided that understanding the two forms of communication would be a good topic for my research paper.

 Research Goal

The goal of this research paper is to prove or disprove a recently stated opinion that Cued Speech is on the verge of overtaking ASL as the most commonly used form of communication of the deaf community.  This will involve developing an understanding of the difference between ASL and Cued Speech.

Research Methods

Research will be conducted as follows:

  • A definition of ASL and Cued Speech will be provided
  • A search for growth trends will be conducted
  • A review of the use of each will be performed


As found in Webster’s Dictionary, American Sign Language is “a sign language for the deaf in which meaning is conveyed by a system of articulated hand gestures and their placement relative to the upper body”(Webster, 1983).  As stated on the ASL University website, “American Sign Language is a complete, natural language” (Vicars, 2003).   That is to say, ASL is a complete stand-alone language just like French, English, or Spanish.

A definition for Cued Speech was found on the website of the National Cued Speech Association.  “Cued Speech is a sound-based visual communication system. In English, it requires eight handshapes in four different locations in combination with the natural mouth movements of speech, to visually differentiate the sounds of spoken language” (Fleetwood, 1995).

Cued Speech, it turns out, is not a language at all.  It is a visual representation of other languages.  Cued Speech was developed for the English Language first.  It was developed by R. Orin Cornett, Ph.D. at Gallaudet University, in 1965 (Caldwell, 1997).   Cued Speech was designed to improve the early English language development of children who are deaf and provide them with a foundation for English reading and writing (Caldwell).  Through the years, Cued Speech has been adapted for use in about 60 different languages (Caldwell).


A recent article in The Salt Lake Tribune, a local paper to this researcher, provided an example of ASL’s popularity and use.  ASL is currently the third most commonly used language in the United States behind English and Spanish (Ravitz, 2005).  In 1994, the Utah State legislature officially recognized ASL as a language.  In 1998, they encouraged it to be taught in Utah public schools and allowed foreign language credits for students that take ASL classes (Ravitz).  In fact, the Granite School District, in Salt Lake City, is having a hard time keeping up with demand for qualified ASL teachers (Ravitz).  The Utah issues alone speak volumes of the popularity of ASL.

Growth information for Cued Speech is much more difficult to come by.   According to the National Cued Speech Association, Cued Speech has grown slowly during the past three decades (Roffe, 2000).  Today Cued Speech is used in most of the U.S. States and in about 20 countries.   Its use is constant and solid (Roffe).

The words constant and solid indicate growth in use, but do not provide any reference to growth compared to ASL. One source does provide such information. The Gallaudet Research Institute conducts an annual survey of deaf and hard of hearing youth and children. They publish the information in an annual report, the Regional and National Summary Report of Data from the Annual Survey of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children and Youth. Results of the annual survey data are broken into several different categories.

One category, The Primary Method of Teaching, is used to record the language used in the teaching environment of the students in the Gallaudet survey. The category is broken into five sub-groups: Speech Only, Sign and Speech, Sign Only, Cued Speech, and Other (Gallaudet, 2001).  For this research, data from the 1999 and 2003 surveys were compared.

If Cued Speech is growing significantly, one would expect to see the percentage of students being taught using Cued Speech growing between the 1999 and 2003 survey.  This is not the case. In fact, the percentage of students being taught in a Cued Speech environment stayed steady at .4 % (Gallaudet 2001 & 2003).  During the same period, the percentage of students in the Sign Only teaching environment grew from 5.8% in 1999, to 9.5% in 2003 (Gallaudet, 2003).

The survey does not name ASL specifically as the sign language used in the sign only category, but it can be assumed that ASL makes up a majority of the category since it is the most popular sign language in the country.   Based on a comparison of survey information, it does not appear that Cued Speech is about to replace ASL.

Usage issues

A significant difference between the two communication systems is that ASL is a complete language, where Cued Speech is not a language at all.  Cued Speech is a visual representation of the English Language.  Because of that, Cued Speech may have an advantage over ASL in an environment where a translation is being made.

Cueing involves transliterating, not translating (LaSasso, 2003).  Transliterating involves converting exact words into exact visual cues.  A perfect conversion of meaning is possible if the message is cued properly (LaSasso).  ASL, on the other hand, involves translating.  Translating involves converting English to ASL.  An exact translation is much more difficult to achieve using ALS vs. Cued Speech (LaSasso).

A second advantage that Cued Speech has over ASL is the energy required for learning.  ASL is a unique language that can take years for an individual to become fluent, as is true for learning any new language (Caldwell).   Cued Speech takes only about 20 hours to learn, and only several months to become fluent for an individual that already knows the base language (Caldwell).

The big advantage that ASL has over Cued Speech is its popularity in use.   Cued Speech has not been around for a long time.   Young adults that grew up using Cued Speech can use it to communicate with other cuers and their hearing friends that have learned it (Caldwell).  However, Cued Speech is not used as extensively by adults. Unless they learn ASL, individuals who grow up using Cued Speech cannot communicate with the larger community of Deaf adults who use sign language (Caldwell).


There are significant differences between ASL and Cued Speech.  ASL is a language, where Cued Speech is a visual representation of another language.  Cued Speech is a valuable tool that can be used in addition to ASL to help people with hearing impairments with communication.  It appears that Cued Speech is very useful in an educational environment, but has not yet become dominant in social settings.

After conducting research, it is obvious that Cued Speech is not on the verge of overtaking ASL.  My cousin’s opinion appears to have been made either with bias, or without knowledge of the differences and use of each.

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  1. I found this blog to be very informative, exceptionally well presented, and most of all, accurate. ASL has been around much longer than Cued Speech, and is dominant due to the hugh basis of Govt financial support that it had prior to Cued Speech being developed, and continues to have due to the hugh number of ASL users. Because of the number of users it maintains it’s dominance and preference in social positions.
    Cued Speech however is much better for it’s educational benefit of literacy with any language. Most Cued Speech users are mainstreamed with their hearing peers in a regular education classroom and are on par with their hearing peers educationally. This translates into being more prepared to live in a hearing world. Of course the downside is the social issues of not being part of the ASL world, and not fully being part of the hearing world.
    This blog doesnt mention the advance of Cochlear Implants but it’s also importatnt to understand that the advancement of implant technology plays a role in the popularity of ASL and CS. Parents of deaf children that want their child to use sign language are typically not parents that would consider a cochlear implant for their child. Parents who want their child to be oral and consider an Implant, seem to fit into a group that would select CS for their child. However, with the advancement of implant technology, the implanted child usually can hear well enough with the implant so that they dont need CS, or dont need it as much.
    Both ASL and CS play an important role in communication for deaf individuals. Each has its pros and cons but we live in a hearing world so although CS may not be as popular as ASL, it certainly provides an advantage to literacy.

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