Sheri K. Barksdale, Assistant Professor 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 colleges over the past 25 years. Once thought to be a limited collection of iconic gestures, William Stokoe published research in 1960 proving that ASL is actually a language. There is no doubt that ASL is different from other languages because of it’s visual and gestural components but it IS a language, one with nuances and complexities that most people would not be aware of. If you need to be convinced of the lack of simplicity, ask an ASL student half way through their first semester of study.
There are two terms that should have some distinction. The phrase ‘sign language’ typically encompasses a wide range of manual communication. It might mean a deaf person who communicates using Signed English, where every word has a sign, and is signed in the word order of spoken English. Since there is a sign for every word, it’s possible to speak English and sign at the same time. Then there is ASL. American Sign Language is the language used by American Deaf people in the Deaf community. Deaf people typically proudly identify themselves as Deaf and as users of ASL. Deaf is not a four letter word to be avoided in this community, but is an acceptable identification that implies use and acceptance of ASL and hearing loss. For the vast majority of ASL users in the Deaf community, it’s acceptable to use the term Deaf over the term ‘hearing impaired’. Being identified as hearing impaired, focuses on something that Deaf people can’t do (hear) and takes away from the life and vibrancy of the language and culture. Being named as ‘impaired’ doesn’t necessarily provide the political correctness that most people strive to attain. However, the word Deaf generally implies use of ASL, a language in which opportunities for clear communication are possible.
The typical person doesn’t really have much of an opinion of what ‘sign language’ or ‘ASL’ really is. Some people may think that ASL is limited to acting out verbs, however ASL users know that the language is much more than climbing an imaginary ladder or escaping from an invisible box. It would be wonderful if those attempting to teach ASL had an appreciation for the depth of meaning that can be expressed with ASL. Something as subtle as a slight eyebrow raise, head tilt or squint convey grammatical information and impacts the message being conveyed.
Much to the frustration of foreign language instructors, students cleverly rely on translation websites in order to complete their homework. Students couldn’t possible think that their instructors fall for that do they? The fact that it doesn’t occur to the student that the register and precision of their written homework is so dissimilar from what they produce in class, might raise a red flag to their teacher is fascinating.
Even some educators don’t understand the necessity of respecting ASL as a language. I attended a workshop that was presented by a respected foreign language educator. He suggested that attendees should go online and search American Sign Language (ASL) dictionary websites in order to teach their students sign language. Though the intent was to bolster another foreign language, this is concerning. Following that logic, if an instructor of ASL were to go to a site and find out how to say the Spanish words for “Hello”, “good morning”, and “time for class” does it mean that they are qualified to teach Spanish to their students or to incorporate Spanish as part of the ASL curriculum? Would my colleagues who teach Spanish support my endeavor to teach Spanish to preschool, kindergarten and elementary students? Not likely. So conversely, what is it about ASL that makes people think that once they look up a sign, they are qualified to teach?
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 they teach, not simply be a page ahead of his or her students. Isolated signs do not constitute a language. However well-intentioned the educator or parent may be, they are often misinformed.
Let me provide an example for you. Every language is related to a culture and because of that alignment some phrases cannot be directly translated into another language without understanding the cultural significance of the phrase. Focal vocabulary are terms that are related to important concepts of a given culture. Examples of such vocabulary are present in ASL. For example, there are many ways to convey the phrase ‘sign language’, however the sign for ‘music’ and related terms are very limited. There are also colloquial expressions that aren’t necessarily taught as part of a formal course. For example, in English we might say “Oh, that’s cool!”, which has nothing to do with temperature. The idea of conceptual accuracy is important to maintain. Take for example the word ‘fly’. In English it could mean a specific insect, to move quickly, to travel by airplane, or to move through the air with wings, among other meanings. However, it often happens that a well-intentioned person, without expertise, will look up the word ‘fly’ on an online ASL dictionary site, use the first sign shown, and apply it to every meaning of the word. It doesn’t make sense to sign “There is an-airplane-flying in my classroom.” when in fact they mean “There is a fly in my classroom.”. By understanding a second language we respect that not everything is equal to our native language.
I think it is wonderful that teachers want to expose children to sign language and ASL, but it is imperative that the teacher have a firm grasp on the language themselves. They have the power to influence and educate about a language and they should that they fully understand and appreciate their power and influence.
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.” My response? “Why yes, yes it is almost like taking a real language, because it is a real language.”