The Legitimacy of American Sign Language
American Sign Language has historically struggled
with colleges and universities to be acknowledged as a language
that can be learned for credit. To reach the point where it has
become the fourth most taken language class in America (Lewin
citing the Modern Language Association’s study), ASL has had to
overcome many stigmas in order to be a college class. Now that
ASL is offered in most colleges and universities, students have
responded by learning more sign language and reaping its
benefits in a broad range of activities.
"It's not a foreign language. These are people .
. . are dependent on the English language. [American Sign
Language] is not sufficient to sustain a culture," said Robert
Belka, a former chairman of the foreign language department at
Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, (Lourgos).
The only word of note in the previous paragraph
is “former.” See this question: How can a man who does not view
the Deaf Community as having their own Culture and the practice
of ASL as nothing more than something that is dependent upon
English run a language department at a respected American
University? See answer: He no longer does. Weber State now
accepts ASL, (Lourgos).
American Sign Language is related to English as
English is related to Latin. None of their grammatical
structures bear much resemblance because they are their own
languages. In fact, romantic languages, such as Spanish and
French, have more in common grammatically than English and ASL.
Languages evolve from one another. ASL is
its own language with culture that sustains many Americans.
Kristen Harmon, a professor of English at Gallaudet University
claims that an estimated 20 million Americans have measurable
hearing loss, and ASL serves as the primary language of 250,000
to 500,000 people, (Weise).
The most common arguments against ASL as class
for college credit have been that is not a foreign
language, being as it is primarily spoken in America and it has
no official written form. However the primary function of
language is to communicate with a like-minded individual or
group. The first definition of language is
“a body of words and the systems
for their use common to a people who are of the same community
or nation, the same geographical area, or the same cultural
Deafness creates it’s own cultural tradition. To
those who can hear, living Deaf is foreign, and vice versa. Like
Navajo, ASL is foreign without being geographically separate.
Like many African languages ASL serves the purpose of
communication without a written element (Lourgos).
As Lourgos reported, Timothy Reagan, an education
professor at Central Connecticut State University, said, "One of
the worst things you can do to a human being is to say, 'Your
language doesn't count.’”
What is recognized as a foreign language in
America has changed, and ASL is garnering more respect from
institutions. Lewin writes, “more than 90,000 students enrolled
in sign language classes last year (2009), compared with only
4,304 in 1995.” The trend is not ceasing; “From 2006 to 2009,
college students enrolled in sign language classes increased by
Lewin points out that the usefulness of ASL in
employment credentials extends beyond being an interpreter –
where $40 to $80 an hour can me made – into more diverse
positions such as “cognitive psychologists, educators, nurses,
and even scuba divers.” It also can open new mediums of
communication for one of the largest and most essential adult
fields -- parenthood. The American Academy of Pediatrics
recently endorsed sign language in its material for new parents,
when saying, "Infant sign language really does deliver on its
promise of improved communication," (Crawford).
Laura Berg, the mother of Fireese Berg, points
out that there is more to be gained than efficiency in
communication by teaching babies to sign. Ms. Berg has had
videos of Fireese practicing ASL on the internet since she was a
baby. Laura argued that as babies grow into toddlers and
grade-schoolers signing can hone motor skills and spelling
ASL is a language. Fortunately,
outdated point of views have less weight now, and as a result,
more Americans are learning how to communicate with the Deaf
Community in America. Even those who learn ASL and rarely have
people to sign with will reap benefits in daily life from their
increased knowledge on how bodies speak.
Berg, Laura. “Baby sign language – don’t stop signing.” Youtube.
Com. 14 Jan. 2011
Crawford, Trish. “Sign of the times; Eager parents use sign
language to teach babies to talk before they can utter a word.”
The Toronto Star. 2 Nov. 2010. Pg. E1.
Leventis Lourgos, Angie. “Colleges mull over credit status for
American Sign Language; Debate prompts question: What is the
definition of ‘foreign’?” The Washington Post. 13 June 2010. Pg.
Lewin, Tamar. “Colleges See 16% Increase in the Study of Sign
Language.” New York Times. 8 Dec. 2010. Pg. A20.
Weise, Elizabeth. “More sign language students signal a shift.”
USA Today. 8 Dec. 2010. Pg. A1. “language.” Dictionary.com. 14
Jan. 2011. http://dictionary.reference.com/ browse/language.