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American Sign Language:  Literacy

(DRAFT: Oct: 31 2009)

ASL LITERACY:
THE POWER OF ASYNCHRONOUS COMMUNICATION
WILLIAM VICARS


Why is literacy important?

Literacy is commonly defined as being able to read and write.  It is also defined as having knowledge of a subject.  Writing can be thought of as an act of converting information such as thoughts or utterances into a lasting and typically portable format. 

The value of written information is that it can be transported to other places and accessed later. 

The process of accessing written information is called “reading.” The writer and the reader do not need to “synchronize” their activities. The writer and the reader do not need to be in the same place at the same time.  The ability to read makes it possible to access information asynchronously.  Asynchronous information access provides a powerful advantage for individuals and societies.

Imagine two literate people traveling though the desert and they stop for water at a small pond. One of the people bends down and scoops a drink of water to his lips.  Suppose the water were poisoned and the first person dies.  The second person could take a piece of drift wood and write on it “POISON” and post it as a warning to future travelers.  Literacy allows the early travelers to asynchronously deliver valuable information (that water from this pond is not drinkable) to later travelers.  Literate travelers will be able to benefit from the asynchronous use of language.

Literacy is important because it provides an evolutionary advantage to the literate. Literate people are able to record and later share their thoughts and utterances.  This is an important point:  The benefit of literacy is asynchronous communication. 

An illiterate person is “cut off” from the asynchronous use of his or her own language.

A literate society has an advantage over an illiterate society in being able to learn from the experiences of one another and pass that learning on to later generations.  A literate society is able to more thoroughly appraise and check for the accuracy, authenticity, and validity of one another’s ideas or campaigns.

Some fish “fly” through the air (e.g. Exocoetidae—a.k.a. “flying fish”) and some birds swim very well (e.g. penguins), but by and large, birds do better in the air and fish prefer the water because it is the environment for which they are naturally equipped. 

People who are Deaf typically use American Sign Language (or one of many other signed languages) to express their utterances and thoughts.  Some Deaf people learn to speak, read, and write English very well; just as some Hearing people learn to sign and understand signing very well; but, by and large, Deaf people prefer and communicate better with sign language because it is based on a grammar system for which they are naturally equipped.

Prior to the advent video recording there had been no widely available method of directly converting the thoughts or utterances of Deaf people into a permanent, portable, and easily retrievable form.  Individuals wishing to participate in the advantages of asynchronous communication had to first learn a second language based on an incompatible grammar system, (English or some other spoken language) and then convert that second language into a permanent/retrievable form.

By early 2009 the Internet had matured to the point where it provided convenient, affordable, and interactive access to large numbers of Deaf people.  Many Deaf Internet users ceased to be passive browsers of web content written in an incompatible language and instead began actively recording their thoughts and utterances in American Sign Language onto video and storing those recordings online where they could be transmitted and retrieved easily by other Deaf people.  This is the essence and substance of literacy.

Consider the following two terms:
1.  Computer Literacy: Having a knowledge of computers.
2.  English Literacy: Having the ability to read and write English.

We do not generally consider “having a knowledge of English” to mean “English Literacy.”  Instead we consider “having a knowledge of English” to mean “English competency or fluency.”

Thus we could say:
1.  English fluency:  “Knowing” English (generally referring to the ability to speak and understand English).
2.  English literacy:  The ability to encode, preserve, and access English into and from a lasting format.

Now, let’s expand our working definition of English literacy a bit:
English literacy:
a.) The ability to encode, preserve, and access English into and from a lasting format.
b.) A familiarity with items of importance that have previously been encoded.  (A “literate” person knows of and is familiar with famous or important literary works that have been recorded in English.)

ASL literacy:
a.) The ability to encode, preserve, and access ASL into and from a lasting format.
b.) A familiarity with items of importance that have previously been encoded.  (A “literate” person knows of and is familiar with famous or important literary works that have been recorded in ASL.)

Tools of literacy:

English literacy tools:
Pencils, paper, books , typewriters, computers, word processing software, monitors, kindle readers, etc.

ASL Literacy Tools:
Video cameras, film, memory cards, computers, monitors, internet connections, video editing software.

 A literate “Deaf” person in this new age of ASL Literacy is one whom is able to encode his thoughts and utterances for asynchronous communication purposes. Additionally this person is familiar with the process of retrieving previously stored ASL thoughts and utterances. 

Just as English literacy consists of the ability to take English thoughts and utterances and convert them to paper or electronic media—the first of the two definitions of ASL literacy (the ability to encode, preserve, and access ASL into and from a lasting format) requires of the ability to take one’s thoughts and utterances and convert them to film, or electronic media. Thus, using a video camera is as important to ASL literacy as using a pencil or a keyboard is to English literacy. A Deaf person whom doesn’t know how to vlog (create and upload video web logs) or use other video encoding processes is “ASL illiterate.” They are “cut off” from the asynchronous use of their language.

 

 


 


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