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Alternating Diglossia in the American Deaf Community: A Dynamic Interplay of ASL and English

By William G. Vicars, EdD
October 25, 2023



The concept of diglossia, traditionally defined as the coexistence of two linguistic varieties within a single community, gains a unique dimension when examined in the context of the American Deaf community. The dynamics between American Sign Language (ASL) and written English among the Deaf community showcase an "alternating diglossia," where the roles of the "high" (H) and "low" (L) varieties flip based on the social context and audience. This intricate interplay illustrates the adaptive strategies that the Deaf community employs and the nuanced layers of their linguistic experiences.


Traditionally, in diglossic societies, the H variety is reserved for formal, prestigious domains, while the L variety is used in informal, everyday interactions. For the Deaf community interacting within its own bounds, ASL often occupies the H position, revered and respected for its rich cultural ties, history, and depth of expression. It is the language of identity, camaraderie, and profound personal experiences. Conversely, written English, while understood and employed, may be viewed more functionally, fulfilling practical needs of a society where written communication plays a significant role.


However, when Deaf individuals engage with the predominantly "hearing world," the dynamics shift dramatically. English, especially its written form, is the dominant language in the broader American society. In these contexts, English takes on the H role, given its institutional dominance in education, governance, media, and broader societal communication. ASL, despite its significance and richness, can be relegated to an L role, often misunderstood or unrecognized by the larger hearing population.


Several factors contribute to this alternating diglossia:


1.  Cultural Identity vs. Practical Necessity: Within the Deaf community, ASL is not just a language; it's an embodiment of a shared history, culture, and identity. ASL represents unity and pride. In contrast, written English serves as a bridge to navigate the broader world, often out of practical necessity rather than cultural affinity.


2.  Pedagogical Implications: Historically, the education system's approach to Deaf education has oscillated between ASL-centric approaches and oralism, with the latter emphasizing written English and lip reading. This historical tension showcases the alternating prestige associated with each language based on institutional decisions.


3.  Technological Impact: With the rise of digital communication, the Deaf community has leveraged platforms like social media to celebrate ASL, with video-based content enhancing its visibility. However, text-based platforms still necessitate written English, underscoring the simultaneous importance of both languages.


4.  Advocacy and Awareness: The Deaf community has tirelessly advocated for ASL's recognition and rights. However, the broader societal understanding (or lack thereof) of ASL can often influence its positioning in the H/L spectrum during external interactions.


The experience of alternating diglossia in the Deaf community is a testament to its resilience and adaptability. While the flipping of linguistic roles could be seen as a challenge, it also underscores the Deaf community's unique ability to navigate dual linguistic landscapes, each with its own set of cultural, historical, and social implications. This dynamic also serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of understanding and respecting linguistic diversity in all its multifaceted dimensions.


Cite this article:

APA, 7th Edition:
Vicars, W. G. (2023). Alternating diglossia in the American Deaf community: A dynamic interplay of ASL and English. Lifeprint Library. ASL University.

MLA, 8th Edition:
Vicars, William G. "Alternating Diglossia in the American Deaf Community: A Dynamic Interplay of ASL and English." ASL University, Lifeprint Library, 25 Oct. 2023,

Chicago 17th Edition:
Vicars, William G. 2023. "Alternating Diglossia in the American Deaf Community: A Dynamic Interplay of ASL and English." Lifeprint Library. ASL University.


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