ASL…Could It Be A Real Language?

Sheri K. Barksdale, Instructor of American Sign Language, University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College

American Sign Language has been gaining acceptance as a legitimate course of study in high schools and college over the past 20 years.  Once thought to be solely a collection of disorganized gestures, William Stokoe published research supporting the fact that ASL is actually a language.  There is no doubt that ASL is different from other languages because of its visual gestural components, but it is a language, and a complex one at that.  If you need to be convinced of the lack of simplicity, ask one of my students after his first semester of study.

So, what is it about sign language that makes people think that looking up a word on the internet constitutes learning sign language?  Even some educators don’t understand the necessity of respecting ASL as language.  I attended a workshop that was presented by a respected foreign language educator.  She suggested that teachers go to a search engine in order to learn given signs to use with students.

I have seen instances where primary aged children are “taught” sign language, by their classroom teacher.  If the teacher knows sign language, it’s a wonderful way for children to learn and use sign language.  Using signs with children engages children in multi-sensory literacy.  The problem is that the teacher should be an expert in the subject he teaches, not simply be a page ahead of his or her students. Isolated signs do not constitute a language.  However as well-intentioned the educator or parent may be, he is often misinformed

I once had an honors student in my beginning ASL course.  She started my class a week late, against my advice.  I warned her that she was placing herself at a disadvantage, and would have a great deal of difficulty succeeding in the class.  At the end of the only class session she attended, she commented “This is hard, it’s almost like learning a real language.”  What was my response?  “Why yes, yes, it is almost like taking a real language because it is a real language.”


This entry was posted in OFLA News: Association, Vol. 53, No. 2 - Winter 2015. Bookmark the permalink.