American Sign Language is a Foreign Language
Notes on terminology
Before we start this discussion, I must make a few notes about the terminology used here. Readers will notice that there are instances where deaf is spelled with an uppercase D and other instances where it is spelled with a lower case d. The reason for this is to distinguish between audiological deafness rather than cultural Deafness. In other words, a person who is deaf cannot hear. A person who is Deaf is a full member of Deaf culture, and may not be audiologically deaf at all; a person who is Deaf can have full hearing capabilities, or be hard of hearing, but must think and act as a Deaf person, including using American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary method of communication (Supalla 27). This deaf/Deaf distinction is a common practice and is used consistently by the authors quoted in this paper, and I have tried to follow the convention (Sacks xi; Gannon 22-23; Padden 5, Roach, pars 2-3). Also, American Sign Language is sometimes referred to as “Sign Language” or “The Sign Language” (but not “sign language”). Most of the authors I have quoted use the proper name for ASL, but the reader should be aware of the different names this language is called.
The other clarification which must be made is what we mean by foreign, or foreign language. Some objectors to the idea of ASL as a foreign language have pointed out that since ASL is indigenous to America (despite its origins in France), it cannot be foreign by definition. However, I believe that the ordinary definition of a foreign language is a language that is foreign to the learner. If we are to exclude ASL from being foreign by the previous definition, then Native American languages such as Navajo must also be excluded. Further, if we are to consider English as indigenous to North America, Spanish must also be excluded because it is arguably as “native” to North America as English is and is certainly widely spoken as a native language in the United States (Reagan 11). The purpose of foreign language requirements is to expose the student to cultures and languages different from his or her own. There is no inherent reason why this culture and language must come from another country (Reagan 11).
Laurent Clerc is a significant figure in the history of American Sign Language. He was a Deaf French man who came to the US with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet for the sole purpose of teaching deaf students (Nakamura, par. 5; Vigoda, pars. 22-23; Gannon xxi-xxii; Maher 8-9; Supalla 26; Fromkin 11).
Gallaudet University is “is the world's only university that brings together deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing students as well as faculty in the common pursuit of education” (Gallaudet U., par. 2). Specifically, Gallaudet is the school of choice for the Deaf. They make every necessary accommodation for deaf or hard of hearing students (most of their classes are taught in American Sign Language). More importantly, however, Gallaudet University is a place where Deaf culture can flourish absent of hearing American culture.
The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that ASL fully meets the definition of a foreign language and should therefore be accepted by Eckerd College to fulfill the foreign language requirement. Primarily I am doing this so that Eckerd will allow me to use ASL to fulfill the foreign language requirement, but I also feel that the Deaf community has been done a great injustice by higher education in America. Eckerd is continuing this trend by failing to recognize the rich culture, heritage and language of the Deaf as worthy of study as a foreign language. I hope that this paper will raise awareness among Eckerd faculty and administration, and hope that perhaps some day Eckerd will not only accept ASL as a foreign language as general policy, but will also offer courses in ASL.
When I requested that I be allowed to use ASL to fulfill the foreign language requirement, I was asked by Professor Antonio Melchor to demonstrate that ASL is a foreign language despite being developed here in the United States, how it can be the expression of a foreign culture, and how it is not simply English in gestural form. As I will demonstrate in this paper, these questions help to illustrate how ignorant most people are about Deaf people and their language, and just how foreign American Deaf Culture is to us.
ASL is not English
The idea that ASL is simply a gestural form of English is easily refutable. According to Klima, et al., “ASL is a fully developed language, one of hundreds of naturally occurring signed languages of the world, with a complex grammatical structure” (qtd. in “ASL as a Foreign Language,” par. 5). ASL is not related to English, does not resemble English, and should not be considered a form of English (Nakamura, par. 2; Vigoda, par. 14; Vigoda, par. 24-26; Lucas 407; Van Cleve 106; Fromkin 16-17; “Culture of American Deaf People,” 26; Selover 155). The grammatical structure of ASL is different from that of English (Nakamura, par. 2; Vigoda, par. 14; Van Cleve 106; Fromkin 16-17), and is actually closer to Japanese (Conover, par. 8; Chapin 4), although “ASL is not the derivative of any oral language” according to Rutherford (25). Vigoda points out that ASL is so different from English that when “translated literally [it] can sound like broken English” (24). Wilcox provides a more detailed look at the structure of ASL and reiterates its uniqueness.
[ASL] is not English; it has its own phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics. […] Unlike English, ASL is a polysynthetic language. Words in ASL are very different from words in English. Words in ASL can be verbs that incorporate subjects and objects within themselves, while presenting also complex adverbial, temporal, and other information. (“Breaking Through” 183-84)
In fact, according to Chapin, “ASL has a much more elaborate morphology than most European languages, particularly in the expression of verbal aspect” (4). Cleve & Crouch say that ASL’s “visual form is so strange to hearing people that for decades it was not recognized as a language” (106).
Those who believe that ASL is just a signed form of English may be confusing ASL with something called “signed English,” which is a direct sign-for-word translation of English, with identical word order. ASL and Signed English are entirely different (Vigoda, pars. 24-26; Fromkin 16-17). Vigoda provides an elementary example:
ASL translated literally can sound like broken English. For example, the English sentence “the boy chased the ball” would be signed as “boy chased ball,” or “ball, boy chased.” But much of ASL’s grammar is encoded in movements; facial expressions, especially, can change the meaning. (par. 24)
Foreign Deaf Culture
In order to show that American Sign Language is the expression of a foreign culture, I will show that the Deaf community has a distinct culture of its own, and argue that this culture is foreign to Americans. Finally, I will show that ASL is the expression of Deaf culture.
First we must determine what we mean by culture. Padden provides a suitable definition,
A culture is a set of learned behaviors of a group of people who have their own language, values, rules for behavior, and traditions. A person may be born into a culture; he is brought up according to the values of the culture and his personality and behavior are shaped by his cultural values. Or, a person may grow up in one culture and later learn the language, values, and practices of a different culture and become “enculturated” into that culture. (4)
We have already established that ASL is not English, and we will later see that ASL is the language of the Deaf.
The Deaf share a set of values, rules and traditions different from typical American values. Padden says that “the most striking characteristic of the culture of Deaf people is their cultural values – these values shape how Deaf people behave and what they believe in” (Padden 8). One very striking difference between typical American behavioral rules and Deaf behavioral rules is that in the Deaf community, speaking is looked at negatively; even if it is possible to communicate with someone through speech, it is best to sign (Padden 9-10). Another example is staring; in American culture staring is considered rude, and eye contact is not maintained during entire conversations, but the opposite is true among the Deaf; it is rude to break eye contact with someone you are having a conversation with (Padden 12). The Deaf have “success stories” which probably seem odd to hearing Americans. Padden provides the following example:
A typical story may go like this: a deaf person grows up in an oral environment, never having met or talked with Deaf people. Later in life, the deaf person meets a Deaf person who brings him to parties, teaches him Sign Language and instructs him in the way of Deaf people’s lives. […] These success stories reinforce the strong belief and pride Deaf people have in their way of life: that it is good and right to be Deaf. (11)
The deaf are outsiders in the hearing American world. Mow says that each deaf person has experienced “mental isolation,” which he describes vividly; “while everyone is talking or laughing, you are as far away as a lone Arab on a desert that stretches along every horizon. Everyone and everything are a mirage; you see them but you cannot touch or become a part of them. You thirst for connection” (38). The Deaf are further alienated from American society because they are not treated as normal healthy people (“Culture of American Deaf” 30). Also consider the term “hearing impaired” – although frequently used to refer to the deaf, and hard of hearing, this label is considered highly offensive to the Deaf. It ignores cultural identity, and its use among hearing is a sign of ignorance (Roach, par. 5; “What is Wrong,” par. 6).
The Deaf have their own jokes, some of which are funny when signed, but not when translated to English, others are funny only to those in the Deaf community and don’t make sense to outsiders because they have not shared the experiences of being Deaf (“Funny in Deaf” 70; Wilbers 146). For examples of Deaf humor, see (Holcomb 70; Gannon 203-10).
The Deaf have “a rich legacy of cultural traditions and customs, norms and values, history and folklore, literature and art that serve in the maintenance of the identity and solidarity of the group” (“Culture of American Deaf” 30). Smith says that “deaf and hearing persons have very different notions about success, accomplishments, embarrassment, personal space, private business, bodily functions, personal relationships, and community responsibilities” (77-78).
Deaf culture is not only different from American culture, but actually has features that set it apart from all other cultures, as Wilbers explains:
Like gender, it cuts across all racial and economic lines. One illustration of this is the fact that deaf children (of whom over 90% are born to hearing parents) commonly include in their concept of “family” their teachers and deaf schoolmates as well as their parents and relatives. Deaf culture is unique in the sense that it overlays segments of other subcultures and redefines traditional social boundaries and entities. As such, it offers special challenges and opportunities to the student of language and culture. (143)
American Deaf culture has been around since before the 19th century, with roots in Deaf cultures in Europe (Humphries 103).
The Deaf have their own mythology about the beginning of their culture just as other cultures do (Humphries 107-08). Gannon’s book provides a thorough look at the history of Deaf culture in America, documenting the many forms of oppression that Deaf people have suffered through in the past, but mostly focusing on the triumphs of Deaf people and the growth of their culture.
One particularly famous moment of triumph for Deaf people was the protests by Deaf students at Gallaudet University, when they shut down the campus in protest of being assigned a hearing president “who knew only a few signs of American Sign Language and who was ignorant of the culture it expressed” (Maher 2).
The experience of a Deaf child growing up in a Deaf home and then being exposed to hearing people is much like the experience any child would have growing up in one culture and being exposed to a foreign one, as Humphries illustrates.
A comment by a Deaf man from a Deaf family helps us see this: “Would you believe, I never knew I was deaf until I first entered school.” Most people when they read or are told about this comment think that he meant that he never realized before that he could not hear sounds. This is not his meaning at all. He knew what the sign DEAF meant at home; it was used to refer to “us,” family and friends who make up his world. Then he goes to school and finds quickly that it has a different meaning. The people in school use DEAF to mean “not like us” and “a remarkable (easily noted) condition.” This contrasts with his meaning of the same sign, “one who behaves as expected.” (104-05)
Deaf thought and behavior are actively reinforced by the Deaf. The sign THINK-HEARING is an insult used to label hearing or deaf people who do not think or act like Deaf people (Humphries 115). Deaf people have historically felt so alienated from hearing American culture that in 1856 there was serious debate among the Deaf about the prospect of creating a separate Deaf state (Humphries 135; Gannon 60-69). Even Laurent Clerc participated in these discussions (Gannon 60-69).
Another distinct aspect of Deaf culture that sets it apart from many other cultures is its naming traditions. Supulla explains, “The American Sign Language (ASL) Name Sign System is one system that has served Deaf people for a long time. Although most Deaf people have a (English) name printed on their birth certificate, they need another form (other than vocal) to express their name sign in daily life” (Supalla xiii-xiv).
The naming system used by the Deaf is actually considerably complex and there is an entire book dedicated to the subject (see Supalla), so I will not go into the details here.
Name signs are not only a way of expressing someone’s name in sign, but they are also used differently from English names, as Supulla describes:
It is well known that English names can be used in a conversation in specific ways. For example, in a regular conversation, one can use a name to get someone’s attention (e.g. “Hey, Mike”); for emphasis (“Mike, I cannot believe you.”); and to refer to someone who is not present (e.g., “Can you tell Mike?”) In comparison to English, ASL name signs are used only for the third example; thus name signs are used only to refer to a third person who is not present. […] It is not proper for me to use my listener’s name sign in a greeting. In order to greet my acquaintance, I simply sign “hello” or, to get this person’s attention, I wave my hand. Thus there are distinct cultural patterns for using a name sign in a conversation. (Supalla 20)
An important part of any culture is its literature. Some have objected that ASL and Deaf culture are not worthy of study as a foreign language because they do not have a body of literature. Rutherford refutes this argument quite nicely,
Some critics have questioned whether there is a body of literature of the culture. The ASL literary output consists of a wealth of materials in stories, poetry, plays, and folklore in print, videotape, and film formats. The folkloristic tradition of Deaf America is over 175 years old and is replete with legends, naming practices, tall tales, folkspeech, jokes, sign play, games, folk poetry, customs, ritual, and celebrations. There are published works created by Deaf playwrights that reflect the Deaf experience on stage such as A Play of Our Own by Dorothy Miles; Sign Me Alice by Gilbert Eastman; and Tales from a Clubroom by Bernard Bragg and Eugene Bergman, and novels such as Islay by Douglas Bullard. There are Deaf publishers whose primary focus is the publication of Deaf literature and related materials in print and electronic media. Among them are T.J. Publishers, Inc.; Dawn Sign Press, Inc.; National Association of the Deaf; and Gallaudet University Press. (“Culture of American Deaf” 31)
ASL is the expression of Deaf culture
Now that we have established that Deaf culture is foreign, I will show that ASL is the expression of Deaf culture; ASL is the native language of many Deaf people (Nakamura, par. 1), and the primary method of communicating for the Deaf. In fact, a deaf person who does not use ASL may not be considered a member of the Deaf community (“Funny in Deaf” 71; “Culture of American Deaf” 27). Rutherford says that “the core of the American Deaf culture is ASL, and its use is the chief identifying characteristic of membership in the Deaf community” (“Culture of American Deaf” 27). Smith says that “ASL is the subtle, elegant, powerful language of a rich, complex culture” (Smith 81-82). Kanda & Fleischer explain the tie between ASL and Deaf culture, “[ASL] is highly prized and increasingly valued by members of the Deaf community, as the language of any community is cherished by its members” (Kanda 86). Barbara Kannapell, a Deaf woman said “once I learned that ASL is my native language, I developed a strong sense of identity as a deaf person and a more positive self-image” (qtd. in Gannon 372).
ASL has fought an uphill battle from the very beginning. It faced opposition from many leaders, including Alexander Graham Bell who advocated oralism and speech training instead. By 1927, sign languages had been banned from most schools as a result of his lobbying (Maher 11-17). Despite the resistance in the hearing world to ASL, and despite the lack of formal training in ASL, Deaf Americans became fluent in this language (Maher 54), and it has become a part of their culture.
The Origins of ASL
The assumption that ASL was developed in the United States is not entirely true. American Sign Language shares approximately 60% of its vocabulary with Old French Sign Language (OFSL). It was brought to America by a French Deaf man, Laurent Clerc, who, as mentioned earlier, came to the US with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet for the sole purpose of teaching deaf students (Nakamura, par. 5; Vigoda, pars. 22-23; Gannon xxi-xxii; Maher 8-9; Supalla 26; Fromkin 11). When Clerc volunteered to go with Gallaudet to the US in 1816, he knew very little written English, and did not speak it (or any other spoken language) at all; he was deaf by the time he was one year old (Gannon 38).
Rutherford provides more detail about the French connection:
Although they have grown in separate directions in their respective cultures since the early 1800’s, ASL and FSL are still somewhat mutually intelligible, similar to spoken Spanish and Italian. […] Theoretically, an American student of ASL could carry on a rudimentary conversation with a French student of FSL without either of them having any knowledge of the spoken language of the other. (“Culture of American Deaf” 26)
Furthermore, the manual alphabet used for fingerspelling in ASL “originated in Spain in 1620 and was passed on to the United States in the early 1800’s with the introduction of deaf education” (Supalla 23; Gannon 11-12).
Growing Acceptance of ASL as a Foreign Language
Many liberal arts colleges are beginning to accept ASL in fulfillment of their foreign language requirements, including Vassar College (“Vassar Catalogue,” par. 20) (16th in the nation according to US News), College of the Holy Cross (Holy Cross 10; College Guide par. 7) (26th in the nation), and Scripps (Scripps, under foreign language section) (34th in the nation). With some of the best liberal arts colleges in the country accepting ASL, Eckerd College (a tier three school according to US News) clearly need not fear academic ridicule for doing the same. There is much recognition of ASL as a foreign language within the government. Several states have even mandated that high schools accept ASL to meet their foreign language requirements, and Utah has actually mandated that ASL fulfill college level foreign language requirements for its state colleges (see “ASL Legislation”; Dixie State College, pars. 46-50).
We have now seen that American Sign Language is a legitimate, fully developed natural language – the language of the Deaf. We have seen that the Deaf have their own distinct culture which is foreign to most Americans, with their own literature, myths, beliefs, behaviors, and naming practices. We have seen that ASL is actually derived from OFSL; not only is it foreign to Americans, it has foreign origins. I have shown that ASL is worthy of study as a foreign language, and that some of the best liberal arts schools in the country agree. Clearly, in light of these facts, Eckerd must change its policy and allow American Sign Language to fulfill the foreign language requirement.
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