ASL: A Paradigm Shift

When I was all of two years old, my family received its first ASL (American Sign Language) lesson. They discovered that maybe, just maybe, this might be a useful language.

It was 1968 and I'd just had my tonsils removed. I woke up in a hospital room surrounded by hearing relatives and a nurse. Naturally, my throat hurt.

"Mmmph," I muttered. No response.

"MMMPHH," I repeated.

"Sh, sh, don't try to talk," said the nurse. "Your throat is sore."

"MMMPHH," I said once again, only this time I started gesturing. Still no response. All of my relatives looked at each other and shrugged.

"MMMPHH, MMMPHH, MMMPH!" By then everyone was scrambling for the source of my angst. One by one my family dug up a teddy bear, a comic book, a favorite toy, and other stuff I had no interest in.

Finally, my Deaf mother walked in the room.

"What's wrong?" she signed.

I quickly made a "W" handshape and gently tapped it on my chin.

"He wants water," my mom explained to my exasperated family. They reluctantly nodded and told the nurse. She said I wasn't allowed to drink yet but I could suck on an ice cube. Good enough for me.

Ten minutes later, the same scene repeated itself only this time I made a "T" handshape and wiggled it. Again, all of the hearing people in the room struggled to figure out what was going on. It was like a game of charades gone bad.

Once more, mom to the rescue.

"He needs to go to the bathroom," she sighed.

Most of my family didn't know what to think. They'd been told all along by medical and educational professionals that ASL was to be avoided at all costs.

Apparently, there was this popular misconception that use of ASL would hinder my speech and also distort my ability to process English (for a rebuttal of this myth, check out my article ASL: Not Guilty ).

But suddenly, here was my family witnessing firsthand that signing is indeed a very effective means of communication. Even so, it took several more years before they finally felt comfortable with it.

History of ASL

ASL has a remarkable history. It is a history not only of beauty, but of survival. According to Journey into the Deaf-World (Lane, Hoffmeister, and Bahan, 1996), in 1779 a Deaf author by the name of Pierre Desloges published a book defending the use of sign language.

Journey into the Deaf-World acknowledges Desloges because even though French priest Charles Michel de l'Epee' is often credited as one of the people behind the creation of French Sign Language, Desloges' publication indicates that sign language existed well before the abbe' de l'Epee' founded the first school for the Deaf in the late 1760's.

Nonetheless, the abbe' de l'Epee' was the first in a long lineage of teachers of the Deaf that resulted in Deaf schools opening all over Europe. Included in this lineage were abbe' Sicard and two of his best Deaf students, Jean Massieu and Laurent Clerc.

As fate would have it, in 1814 Thomas Gallaudet sailed to London in search of a better way to teach Deaf children. His motivation was a nine-year-old Deaf child who lived next door, a girl by the name of Alice Cogswell. During his initial visit to London, Gallaudet eventually met Sicard, Massieu, and Clerc at a public demonstration of their teaching methods.

Impressed with what he saw, Gallaudet wound up travelling to Paris so that he could study under Massieu and Clerc. This culminated in Gallaudet bringing Clerc back to the United States where together they set up the first school for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut.

After the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons opened in 1817, Clerc's influence quickly spread all over the east coast. Although the primary language of instruction in the classroom was a form of manual French/English, Clerc's French Sign Language (or LSF, Langue des Signes Francaise) combined with other regional signs to evolve into ASL. It is for this reason that even today, a significant number of signs in ASL are similar to what you'd find in LSF.

The Milan Manifesto

After new schools for the deaf opened and thrived throughout the 1800's, there was a huge step backwards in 1880. At the infamous second International Congress on Education of the Deaf in Milan, Italy, it became quite apparent that the number one agenda was to eradicate the use of sign language. The organizers of this event were fully convinced that the best way to teach Deaf children was though oralism, or speaking.

In At Home Among Strangers (Schein, 1989), it is noted that only eight countries were represented at this congress, which elicited protests from Edward Miner Gallaudet. He insisted the congress was "unrepresentative" because not only were many countries not present, but Deaf people themselves were not permitted to have a say in the matter.

Regardless, the Milan Manifesto passed by a vote of 160 to 4 in favor of oralism as the preferred method of communication in schools for the Deaf. Arguably, this was the beginning of the Dark Ages in the Deaf community. The use of sign language in classrooms would not emerge again until the 1960's (and even then, Signed English, Sim-Com, or Total Communication were the predominant methods applied--it would take much longer for ASL itself to find its way back to the classroom).

ASL is Back

I'd like to say it was my "water" and "bathroom" episode in the hospital that brought ASL back to the forefront. Truth be told, there were many people fighting behind the scenes to bring this beautiful language back to the classroom in Deaf schools all over the United States.

The biggest breakthrough came in the 1960's from William Stokoe, who shocked the world with research that proved ASL matched all the criteria necessary to be considered a natural language. Although his research and publications were initially met with scorn and ridicule, Stokoe's work withstood the test of time and laid the groundwork for Deaf Studies classes that are the norm today. Most significantly, it opened the door for sign language to be accepted as an appropriate language of instruction in the classroom. By the mid-70's, most schools for the Deaf had once again recognized sign language as such.

Another breakthrough was the famous 1988 Deaf President Now protest at Gallaudet University. Deaf students shut down the campus for a week in opposition of a newly elected president, Elizabeth Zinser, who happened to be hearing. The deaf student body--and the deaf community at large--felt it was time for a deaf person to lead a deaf university. The DPN movement drew worldwide media coverage and succeeded in winning the support of politicians, civil rights leaders, and the general public. DPN culminated in the appointment of Dr. I. King Jordan as the first deaf president of Gallaudet University. The ripple effect from this turn of events led to greater awareness of ASL and Deaf culture.

Since then, ASL has exploded in popularity. It is currently the third most-used language in America. It is now taught for academic credit in hearing high schools and colleges/universities throughout the United States.

An Easy "A"?

A caveat: now that many students can take ASL for foreign language credit, it needs to be said that this is definitely NOT an "easy 'A'." There are numerous students who, intimidated by the traditional foreign language offerings such as Spanish or French, wind up taking ASL because they think it will be much easier. Considering how there's no real written version of ASL (actually, one has been devised, but it's not widely used), how complicated can it get? After all, it's just waving your hands around in the air, right?

Wrong. I can vouch for this myself. When my wife took an Introduction to Linguistics course at Gallaudet University, I took a peek into her textbook and found myself absolutely overwhelmed. There was extensive coverage of ASL phonology, morphology, syntax, use of classifiers, and other jargon I couldn't understand.

Today, my wife is an ASL instructor. She reports that the students who sign up for her classes out of a sincere desire to learn tend to do well. Those who sign up because they think it's an easy way out of the foreign language requirement often find themselves in the midst of a rude awakening. They soon realize that ASL is more than just "gesturing" or a "mimed version of word-for-word English." In fact, it has little in common with English. If you interpret an ASL phrase word-for-word, it will not come out in perfect English, the same way as if you literally translated phrases from Spanish, French, or any other foreign language. In a nutshell: ASL is a language in its own right, as William Stokoe worked so hard to prove several decades ago. When you study it, expect to learn as much as you would as if you were taking any other foreign language course.

That said, anyone who really wants to learn ASL can definitely do so if they put in the effort. It takes only weeks or months to become skilled enough to maintain a basic conversation, so it's not that long before you can use what you learn. At the same time, to truly master ASL, be patient; it can take anywhere between 5 and 10 years to become fluent. And the best way to do so, quite simply, is to become actively involved in Deaf culture.

For more information, I've included the recommended links below. More updates and articles will follow as Deaf Culture Online continues to expand.

ASL Rose

ASL University

Karen Nakamura's Deaf Resource Library

Boston University (linguistics research)

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