When I was all of two
years old, my family received its first ASL (American Sign Language) lesson.
They discovered that maybe, just maybe, this might be a useful language.
It was 1968 and I'd just
had my tonsils removed. I woke up in a hospital room surrounded by hearing
relatives and a nurse. Naturally, my throat hurt.
muttered. No response.
"Sh, sh, don't try
to talk," said the nurse. "Your throat is sore."
said once again, only this time I started gesturing. Still no response. All of
my relatives looked at each other and shrugged.
MMMPH!" By then everyone was scrambling for the source of my angst. One by
one my family dug up a teddy bear, a comic book, a favorite toy, and other
stuff I had no interest in.
Finally, my Deaf mother
walked in the room.
wrong?" she signed.
I quickly made a
"W" handshape and gently tapped it on my chin.
water," my mom explained to my exasperated family. They reluctantly nodded
and told the nurse. She said I wasn't allowed to drink yet but I could suck on
an ice cube. Good enough for me.
Ten minutes later, the
same scene repeated itself only this time I made a "T" handshape and
wiggled it. Again, all of the hearing people in the room struggled to figure
out what was going on. It was like a game of charades gone bad.
Once more, mom to the
"He needs to go to the
bathroom," she sighed.
Most of my family didn't
know what to think. They'd been told all along by medical and educational
professionals that ASL was to be avoided at all costs.
Apparently, there was
this popular misconception that use of ASL would hinder my speech and also
distort my ability to process English (for a rebuttal of this myth, check out
my article ASL: Not Guilty).
But suddenly, here was
my family witnessing firsthand that signing is indeed a very effective means of
communication. Even so, it took several more years before they finally felt
comfortable with it.
ASL is Back
I'd like to say it was
my "water" and "bathroom" episode in the hospital that
brought ASL back to the forefront. Truth be told, there were many people
fighting behind the scenes to bring this beautiful language back to the
classroom in Deaf schools all over the United States.
The biggest breakthrough
came in the 1960's from William Stokoe, who shocked the world with research
that proved ASL matched all the criteria necessary to be considered a natural
language. Although his research and publications were initially met with scorn
and ridicule, Stokoe's work withstood the test of time and laid the groundwork
for Deaf Studies classes that are the norm today. Most significantly, it opened
the door for sign language to be accepted as an appropriate language of instruction
in the classroom. By the mid-70's, most schools for the Deaf had once again
recognized sign language as such.
Another breakthrough was
the famous 1988 Deaf President Now protest at Gallaudet University. Deaf
students shut down the campus for a week in opposition of a newly elected
president, Elizabeth Zinser, who happened to be hearing. The deaf student
body--and the deaf community at large--felt it was time for a deaf person to
lead a deaf university. The DPN movement drew worldwide media coverage and
succeeded in winning the support of politicians, civil rights leaders, and the
general public. DPN culminated in the appointment of Dr. I. King Jordan as the
first deaf president of Gallaudet University. The ripple effect from this turn
of events led to greater awareness of ASL and Deaf culture.
Since then, ASL has
exploded in popularity. It is currently the third most-used language in
America. It is now taught for academic credit in hearing high schools and
colleges/universities throughout the United States.
An Easy "A"?
A caveat: now that many
students can take ASL for foreign language credit, it needs to be said that
this is definitely NOT an "easy 'A'." There are numerous students
who, intimidated by the traditional foreign language offerings such as Spanish
or French, wind up taking ASL because they think it will be much easier.
Considering how there's no real written version of ASL (actually, one has been
devised, but it's not widely used), how complicated can it get? After all, it's
just waving your hands around in the air, right?
Wrong. I can vouch for
this myself. When my wife took an Introduction to Linguistics course at
Gallaudet University, I took a peek into her textbook and found myself
absolutely overwhelmed. There was extensive coverage of ASL phonology,
morphology, syntax, use of classifiers, and other jargon I couldn't understand.
Today, my wife is an ASL
instructor. She reports that the students who sign up for her classes out of a
sincere desire to learn tend to do well. Those who sign up because they think
it's an easy way out of the foreign language requirement often find themselves
in the midst of a rude awakening. They soon realize that ASL is more than just
"gesturing" or a "mimed version of word-for-word English."
In fact, it has little in common with English. If you interpret an ASL phrase
word-for-word, it will not come out in perfect English, the same way as if you
literally translated phrases from Spanish, French, or any other foreign
language. In a nutshell: ASL is a language in its own right, as William Stokoe
worked so hard to prove several decades ago. When you study it, expect to learn
as much as you would as if you were taking any other foreign language course.
That said, anyone who
really wants to learn ASL can definitely do so if they put in the effort. It
takes only weeks or months to become skilled enough to maintain a basic
conversation, so it's not that long before you can use what you learn. At the
same time, to truly master ASL, be patient; it can take anywhere between 5 and
10 years to become fluent. And the best way to do so, quite simply, is to
become actively involved in Deaf culture.
ASL: A Paradigm Shift”
- Many people think being involved in the Deaf
- culture is easy and that learning ASL is easy.
- ASL wasn’t considered a natural language until
- Deaf President Now, DPN, changed history
- Teaching hearing kids ASL isn’t going to hinder
- their learning
- Mid 1970’s most educators recognized ASL as a
- mode for instruction
- It’s important to have a ‘back-up’ language to
- Many families are told to avoid using ASL.
- It may take 5-10 years to become fluent in the
- In the past, many medical professionals were
- ignorant to the deaf culture and the language, slowly improving today
- ASL is the 3rd most used language