American Sign Language, the dynamic visual language used by the American Deaf community and one of the most widely studied languages in the nation, is also the least widely accepted language by high schools and colleges for admissions and graduation requirements. Because of this, students building their high school class schedules are sometimes discouraged from taking ASL, just as I was at the end of eighth grade.
“ASL is mostly for the kids who have trouble learning,” I was told by my school. “It might limit your opportunities. You might not be able to apply to some colleges when you graduate.”
I’ve studied ASL for four years. It’s a beautiful language with a lot to offer students who approach it respectfully. The failure of many schools to recognize its value is rooted in misconceptions, such as the belief that ASL is easier than other languages and that the Deaf community doesn’t count as “a real culture.” However ...
ASL is a real language.
From a purely academic standpoint, ASL measures up to every spoken language in terms of complexity, utility and aesthetics. Sign language is much more than “a language of gestures.” Most of the terms in the language’s 50k+ word vocabulary do not consist of “acting out” what you’re trying to say. Instead, understanding ASL’s hand shape patterns and unique grammar reveals the elegant structure of the language.
A system of eight classifier types allows signers to describe any situation. For example, the semantic classifier “3” is used to represent a vehicle, while an instrumental classifier shows how the tires spin. Signers can create puns, just like in English, by drawing similarities between words with various hand shapes and movements. It is in this way that ASL supports a vibrant range of visual poetry and performance art.
Grammar in ASL is totally separate from English grammar; it’s a whole new mode of expression. It’s not impossible to pick up and can be a very rewarding experience but learning ASL will challenge you just as much as Spanish or French would. It also offers a similar level of employment opportunity: many students take ASL for the sake of a future career, such as interpreting (currently one of the fastest-growing career fields) as well as in the study of linguistics or the pursuit of a job in government or education.
Learning about Deaf culture.
ASL may not be a “foreign” language since it originates from the U.S. But the study of Deaf culture in America offers just as diverse a selection of history, art and literature as any culture from abroad. Today, it’s more important than ever for American students to be exposed to diversity of all types. As a minority group with a long history of innovation and artistic achievement, including the fight against violent oppression, the story of the Deaf community deserves a place in the American classroom.
In 1817, ASL had its birth when Thomas Gallaudet recruited Laurent Clerc to establish the country’s first school for the Deaf. The Deaf community’s first national university was later named after Gallaudet. For the next century and a half, the emerging American Sign Language was forcibly suppressed by advocates of the oral method. Deaf students’ hands were struck or bound to keep them from signing. It was through a long battle that Deaf activists and scholars were able to prove to the world that ASL is a fully functional language on par with English or any other.
This journey, from 1817 to the present day, has produced an immense body of historical documentation. ASL students learn about the controversy of deaf education and the development of what it means to be capital-D Deaf. New hearing aid technology sparks ethical issues and an exploration of what it means to “fix” a disability. Social justice plays a prominent role in the story, as do the many forms of art produced by the Deaf community. It’s all tied to the language that forms the powerful epicenter of Deaf culture.
These are subjects of importance for the contemporary American student. ASL offers a viewpoint into both classic and modern linguistics, unlocking a new dimension of communication. Language and culture link in the fight for freedom of expression and the search for identity. Students who choose ASL will receive a great education on these vital topics, just as I did. Colleges who don’t recognize that are missing out, while those that do will be enriched.
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