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Article Review:
"American Sign Language as a Foreign Language"

Review by Nathan Steenport

            When I first started taking an ASL class a few months ago, I was asking myself a question.  That question was "Is American Sign Language a foreign language"?  So, since I had to do a research paper, I decided that I would choose this topic.  As Dr. Sherman Wilcox explains, in his article, "American Sign Language as a Foreign Language" [], American Sign Language is very much a foreign language today and becoming accepted as one at a lot of major University's.  Dr. Wilcox really helped to understand why it is and what kind of role it will play in my teaching career.

       American Sign Language (ASL) is becoming more widely used as a foreign language all over the United States. Dr. Wilcox explains that it is being used at such universities as Harvard and Yale.  The University of California system is allowing ASL to fill language requirements for graduation.  There are even some states that allow ASL to fill language requirements in high school!  Many times people try to argue that the ASL is using English and that it is not a foreign language at all.  Dr. Wilcox explains that because of the visual use of words rather than the spoken use of words makes it a relative argument that it is indeed a foreign language.

             ASL is not just bound to the borders of the United States.  ASL is accepted in many international affairs.  For example, Dr. Wilcox explains that at the University of Mexico ASL is used for a foreign language and the Navajo language is not.  [Note:  Actually what Sherm said was that "Navajo is taught and accepted in fulfillment of the foreign language requirement, yet it is not used in a foreign country." -- Bill Vicars]

             You might ask what the official language of international deaf conferences is.  Well, they use ASL as their main source to communicate with the deaf. 

             Properly teaching the ASL language is more complex than just teaching the language.  It also requires teaching a lot about the culture.  You may go to a different state or country and they may sign a different way.  It's just like going from Wisconsin (which is where I used to live) to Texas.  We say a lot of things very differently up north then we do in the south.  It is the same with the ASL teachings.  Using ASL can show how the past was much different then the present just by signing something in a different way.  Wilcox also asks the question "Is ASL instruction a worthwhile addition to the curriculum?"  His answer to this was a most certain "YES" and I would have to agree with him.  As he explains, it gives students a look at their culture in a different way.  It is another way to consider who you are and where you are from. 

             There is another big reason why we take ASL as a foreign language.  That reason is that it will help us economically in this world.  If you were applying for a job and you were the only person with a strong background in ASL, then you will have a big advantage in the competition.  This is very true in my field of work.  There are thousands of children all over the country that are deaf and need better ASL teaching.  So by learning even just the basics of ASL, I already have an upper hand on the competition.  You also might think that since they are looking at having ASL as a foreign language that the other languages will be less important at school and in the working community.  In the USA, this is certainly not the case.  Dr. Wilcox explains that there have not been signs of a decline the number of students taking another foreign language.  The students just see the ASL as a new and fun way to communicate with others.

             ASL is becoming a more and more accepted as a foreign language in the USA.  It can get you past that foreign language credit requirement if you want, or you can just take it to get ahead of the competition in a job interview.  I was awakened to the world of ASL in the 6th grade because my best friend was deaf and I had to learn how to communicate with him.  Since then, I have always had a fascination with those who could use ASL as a way to communicate.  I am (some day) hoping to be one of those people.

Reference:   Wilcox, S. (1991). American Sign Language as a foreign language. Retrieved April 29, 2003, from

Discussion:  ASL as a "foreign language"

In a message dated 5/1/2003 1:03:19 AM Central Daylight Time, Camcmillion writes:
How can we urge the schools to make this a [language that fills requirements the same as] French or Spanish. I still do not agree with the many programs for hearing impaired students that do not allow sign language or even classes taught in sign. Lately I have met women in their 20's who had to pay for sign language classes. It doesn't seem right. Do you have any ideas on how to show the importance of this situation?

Dear Camcmillion,
I suggest you join your state's "Association of the Deaf." Pay your membership dues and offer to head up an "ASL Promotion Committee." Then invite like-minded individuals to get involved with a campaign to contact education leaders in your state and encourage them to include ASL the curriculum.

Make sure that your state has passed a law mandating that ASL be allowed to fulfill entrance and exit requirements at all high schools and post-secondary institutions. This doesn't mean they have to offer ASL. It just means that ASL can be used for those purposes. For information on ASL as Foreign Language credit, visit

Then you need to join ASLTA (The American Sign Language Teachers Association) and encourage other ASL teachers to do the same. It is no good if they pass laws and set up classes then have no one to teach the classes, or worse, if they hire incompetent instructors who don't know ASL, Deaf Culture, and appropriate teaching methods. All three are important.
Next, make a list of every person at every school in your state who has direct influence on curriculum decisions and course offerings at their school. Type up a letter explaining the value and benefits of ASL and its increasing popularity as a course of study. Send it to those people and encourage them to contact you.

You said that you didn't think it was right for people to have to pay to take a sign language class. There are two sides to that. I make a living teaching ASL. But I also donate my time to help others. This letter is an example of that. So I think it is okay to charge for teaching ASL just as if I were teaching any other topic. But I also think there needs to be a balance. Families and educators of Deaf children need low cost, subsidized, or free access to ASL training.

It costs money to run a campaign and people need to see ASL as a valuable resource, not as a charity. That doesn't mean that you can't still do free workshops, I'm just saying that people need to recognize that ASL instruction as an honest profession.

Vocational Rehabilitation and school districts can be pushed to pay for ASL training for deaf children and their families. There are laws which point in this direction but the agencies will fight you because they have only so much in their budget. So push for it anyway and let the legislature appropriate more money for them next year.

Have a nice day,

Bill Vicars

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