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The Legitimacy of ASL:

By David Smooke
January 16, 2010


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 tradition," (

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 16%."

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 abilities.

             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. A8.


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." 14 Jan. 2011. browse/language.


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