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ASL and Geography

By Lisa Butler
April 5, 2009

ASL and Geography…No, Really

This is my second ASL research blog and just like the first paper I am surprised by where my research took me. Again I tried to combine my interests with ASL but sadly my Google search for deaf cupcakes offered no promising leads. It did however direct me towards deaf and bicycling which then directed me towards a peculiar link for hand gestures for the deaf or hand gestures in American Sign Language (I can't remember the exact wording). When I followed that search I landed on a lesson plan for 9th-12th graders on sign language from National Geographic. As a Geography major I am familiar with the National Geography Standards whose aim is to create more geographically informed students through education "to help students to see, understand, and appreciate the web of relationships between people, places, and environments" (Downs). I was not aware that the National Geographic created a website with lesson plans for K-12th graders to promote those standards. As it turns out the lesson plan for the introduction to sign language was really interesting.

The lesson overview states that "This lesson is designed to broaden the students' appreciation not only for how humans communicate, but for how we circumvent obstacles to communication as well" (Educators). In the first part of the lesson the students are supposed to come up with gestures that hearing people use (winking, high fives, etc.) and then they are to lookup the definition of the word language. Next, the lesson introduces signs used by professionals such as sports referees and stock exchange brokers. In the last part of the lesson students are to look at finger spelling and basic signs in both American Sign Language and British Sign Language and compare the two. So as you can see the lesson uses concepts that are familiar to students (hearing gestures and referee signals) to demonstrate how signs are used in our daily lives while simultaneously pointing out the limitations to those basic signs and how ASL really is a language.

From a hearing persons perspective I think that overall the lesson plan was pretty good, but I'm not entirely sure why it was assigned to the 9th to 12th grade category. I think that a younger student is more than capable of comprehending this lesson plan. That aside, another good thing about this lesson is that throughout the text it encourages students to look into other topics (and related ones as well) for more information, which is a very geographic minded thing to do. In searching for more information I came across a site that has videos of Geography related signs (like earthquake, river, flood, etc.) and some really interesting articles on ASL meeting the foreign language requirement in schools. Apparently this issue was a hot topic for educators with opponents using ridiculous arguments like ASL should not constitute a foreign language because it's not foreign, as in it's from North America and not a foreign country. This and similar notions were debated in several articles but one that really stuck out to me was the simplest and most straightforward. The author was discussing the utility of learning ASL instead of other foreign languages and he said "The fact is, a person is far more likely to become deaf than, for example, to become French" (Davis 1998). Thankfully these ignorant viewpoints are failing and ASL courses and enrollment are rising. In fact, one survey showed a 432 percent increase in ASL enrollment from 1998 to 2002 (Cornwell 2005).

As a college student I am often faced with the inevitable question, "What's your major?" Every time I hear it I feel an immediate sense of curiosity and dread. I am curious to see how the person will react and at the same time I dread their reaction. More often than not I receive the furrowed eyebrows and the insincere "Oh…that's interesting" followed by an inquiry of how well I can locate places on the map. The truth is I'm not very good at it; I can't tell you the major rivers of India or even name all of the capitals of the 50 states. But more importantly, I have the ability to examine a place, problem or subject from infinite angles to not only see it but to better understand it; which is a skill that frankly everybody should acquire and could benefit from.


Downs, Roger. Geography Standards. National Geographic Xpeditions. National Geographic Society. Retrieved 31, March 2009: <>.

Educators. Lesson plans: gestures, signals, and sign language. National Geographic Xpeditions. National Geographic Society. Retrieved 31, March 2009:

Davis, Leonard J. (1998, June 5). The linguistic turf battles over American Sign Language. Chronicle of Higher Education. LexisNexis. Retrieved 4, April 2009: <>.

Cornwell, Lisa. (2005, Nov. 14). American Sign Language gains popularity as foreign language. 4 Hearing Loss News and Reviews. Retrieved 4, April 2009: <>



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